Khan’s murder sparked national outrage and protests across the country [File: Akhtar/Reuters]
Mardan, Pakistan – Last April, Mashal Khan was lynched by dozens of fellow university students.
The mob was spurred by rumours that the journalism student had somehow insulted Islam. Khan was stripped naked, beaten, shot and thrown out of the second-floor window of his Abdul Wali Khan University dormitory in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
He was 23 years old.
Dozens of people were arrested after the incident, and on Wednesday, a court sentenced one man to death and five to life in prison. Another 25 men were given three-year prison sentences, and 26 others were let go.
An estimated 200 people were thought to be a part of the mob that attacked Khan.
A day after the ruling, Khan’s mother said the verdict did not reflect the gravity of the crime, nor did it go far enough to make up for the pain and suffering felt by her and her family.
“Each of his bones was broken, and he was badly humiliated,” Syeda Gulzar Begum told Al Jazeera.
Gulzar said she is determined to keep fighting for justice for her son’s brutal killing.
“He was not someone else’s blood, that’s why they can’t feel the pain – I was his mother, and I feel the pain. [It is] the worst situation my family and I have ever faced,” she said.
Final resting places
But even in death – and despite a police investigation that found no evidence Khan had ever violated Pakistan’s blasphemy code – her son is not safe.
Khan was buried in a publicly accessible cemetery, where he lies under police protection due to threats from religious hardliners who have said they want to dig him up and burn his remains.
In Pakistan, this is a common threat made against people accused of blasphemy or other religious infractions.
Khan was laid to rest in a dusty family plot, next to a tobacco field near his childhood home.
His loved ones have been fundraising to build a school in his name.
Albeit humble, Khan’s final resting place has become a landmark in the community, as people come to pay their respects.
But he was buried before police cleared his name, and almost no one attended his funeral.
In this way, Khan’s story stands in sharp contrast to a shrine that was built in the capital, Islamabad, to honour Mumtaz Qadri.
In 2011, Qadri, a policeman, shot dead the sitting governor of Punjab province, whom he accused of blasphemy.
Qadri was hanged in 2016. His funeral was attended by tens of thousands, and many see him as a hero – a reality that illustrates the widespread public support that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws still enjoy.
Khan’s journalism professor and mentor said the country’s rules on blasphemy are an open wound that no one seems capable of healing.
“We are reactive, we are emotional, and we believe mostly in knee-jerk reactions,” Sheraz Paracha said.
Young people are also not taught “to be tolerant towards people of other races, towards people of other faiths, towards people of other origins”, Paracha added.
“The thinking for the past 40 years [in Pakistan] has been one dimensional, polarised; it’s an us-versus-them kind of mentality. No us.”
Pakistan is a different society, an ultra-conservative society where people consider religion as a part of life
Sheraz Paracha, journalism professor
Human rights groups say the country’s blasphemy laws are from a bygone era and too easily misused to settle personal scores.
There are strong arguments to abolish or at least reform the laws, Paracha said. The law is not the only problem, however.
“The government should ensure that no law should be misused to target a community … and the law should be enforced fairly,” he said.
While most of the leaders Al Jazeera spoke to said they were in favour of keeping it on the books, they also acknowledged that it was being misused.
But fear of being at the receiving end of the kind of mob justice that killed Khan – and has targeted others before him – makes it nearly impossible for those in positions of power to even begin discussing reforms to the blasphemy law.
In the aftermath of Khan’s murder, some accused the police of not responding quickly enough. Others went further and accused officers of facilitating the attack.
However, a police official told Al Jazeera that police are reassessing their approach to blasphemy cases.
“Committing blasphemy or not is a separate issue,” said Mian Saeed, Mardan’s police chief.
“The main thing is whether we will allow people to take law into their hands and kill any person for committing any kind of a crime, so my answer is no.
“We will not allow anyone to take law into their hands and kill anyone.”
Saeed defended the law, however, saying that it helps prevent social anarchy.
The idea that governments must control what people say about Islam is a common argument used to defend the blasphemy law.
But privately, many people also admit the laws do not live up to the spirit of Islam.
“No sane person, no law-abiding person, no person believing in humanity, no person believing in any religion [would do something like this],” Paracha said, referring to Khan’s death.
“We are followers of Prophet Muhammad, who was in his life accused, hit, targeted by his enemies. He never did this to his enemies, so how could we?”
Khan family memories
Khan’s family, meanwhile, has left his room untouched.
It looks exactly the way it did on the day he left home for the last time: Pictures of Khan and his friends hang on the wall next to academic medals and trophies, some of which are captioned with inspirational sayings.
“Stand up for what you believe in, even if it means standing alone,” one reads. “No racism,” another says.
To his loved ones, these are reminders of the kind of man he was.
“He was a humanist and was only standing up to corruption in his school, and he was accused of blasphemy,” said Khan’s sister, Storiya Iqbal.
In its investigation, Pakistani police said university officials – whom Khan had publicly criticised for corruption and incompetence – conspired to make false allegations against him and rallied the mob that killed him.
“I would tell the government to diminish these laws. Because if we will not abolish these rules and these laws from [their] roots, I think that more and more Mashals will be killed in this world,” Iqbal said.
In the Khan family home, there is both grief and anger.
“My message to the world is that my son didn’t make any mistake and there was no proof against him,” Khan’s mother said.
“So, without proof, why did he suffer this way in Pakistan?
“I just have my voice … My child died with so much cruelty, and I can’t even imagine that in Islam, [there could be] so much cruelty against a child. This is not in accordance with Islam.”