Islamabad: Demonstrators angry over an anti-Islam film accused a local businessman in southern Pakistan of blasphemy, forcing the police to open a case and driving him and his family into hiding, following an argument that broke out when he refused to join their protest, officials said Wednesday.
The incident demonstrates the potential for abuse of the country's strict blasphemy laws as well as the intense feelings the film, which denigrates Islam's Prophet Muhammed, has unleashed in Pakistan.
At least two people have died in protests against the film, which has generated widespread animosity across the Muslim world.
The incident in the city of Hyderabad began when hundreds of protesters rallied Saturday. Some protesters demanded that businessman Haji Nasrullah Khan shut his roughly 120 shops in solidarity, said police officer Munir Abbasi.
When Khan refused, one of his tenants said his decision supported the film, the officer said.
The protesters claimed Khan insulted the Prophet while arguing with them, said city police chief Fareed Jan. But he said there was no evidence to suggest the insults really occurred and that police only opened a blasphemy case because they were pressured by the mob. Opening such a case doesn't mean the person is necessarily charged with the crime but that police are investigating him or her.
Protesters ransacked Khan's house, and surrounded a police station, refusing to go away until officials opened a blasphemy case, Abbasi said.
The situation became even more inflamed when religious leaders from one of the biggest mosques in the city issued an edict calling for Khan's death and announced from the mosque's loudspeakers that he should be killed, Abbasi said.
The police officer said Khan and his family members had gone into hiding in fear for their lives.
Under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of defiling the holy book, or Quran, or insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad can face life in prison or death.
Critics say the laws are often abused to harass non-Muslims or to settle personal rivalries. Radical Islamist groups have also been behind some of the blasphemy accusations.
In this case, Abbasi said, police suspect some of the complaints against Khan by other shopkeepers may have been sparked more by his desire to evict some of them for late payment as opposed to any actual insults.
Abbasi said a prominent pro-Taliban religious party, Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan, and an al-Qaida linked militant group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, had been advocating against the shopkeeper.
Despite the potential for abuse, efforts to amend or repeal the blasphemy laws have failed in the past.
Last year, a minister and a governor were assassinated when they spoke out about misuse of the laws and suggested changing them. The governor was shot and killed by his own guard.
Rights activists and critics of the laws had hoped that the recent case of a 14-year-old girl charged with insulting the Quran would help bring about changes in the laws, or at least help curb abuse.
The case gained widespread attention and sympathy both in Pakistan and internationally due to her young age and questions about her mental capacity.
She was granted bail after a religious cleric was accused of planting evidence to incriminate her, and her lawyers have said they will move to throw the case out entirely.
But a blasphemy accusation, even an unproven one, can be a death sentence in Pakistan.
A report by the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies said that since 1990, 52 people have been killed by vigilantes after being implicated in blasphemy cases.
Earlier this summer a mob in one Pakistani city dragged an accused blasphemer from a police building, beat him to death and burned the body.