Lawyers and judges across Pakistan are avoiding blasphemy cases in the wake of high- profile murders targeting those who have sought to defend people accused of insulting Islam.
The recent killing of Rashid Rehman Khan, a middle-aged lawyer who defended a Muslim university teacher in a recent blasphemy case in the eastern province of Punjab, has showcased the dangers.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws prescribe life imprisonment or even the death penalty for actions and statements judged as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or the Koran.
But human rights campaigners say the blasphemy laws have emerged as a powerful tool in settling personal disputes or vendettas -- mostly with non-Muslims.
Last month Khan, a veteran human rights defender, received death threats for working on the case. He was shot dead in his office on May 7 in Multan, one of Punjab's biggest cities.
Shafqat Mehmood Chohan, head of a lawyers’ association in Punjab's capital Lahore, said that Khan's murder is seen as a warning to lawyers working on blasphemy cases.
"Lawyers are not openly refusing blasphemy cases," he said. "But it is true that after Khan's murder most lawyers will be extremely reluctant to take such cases in the future."
Pakistani politicians, judges, police officers, and lawyers have long been cautious about taking on blasphemy cases, fearing that they themselves would be accused of blasphemy or attacked by vigilante groups and religious organizations that support the blasphemy laws, which are opposed by human rights campaigners.
For many would-be defenders, the 2011 murder of Punjab's governor Salaman Taseer was a bellwether. Taseer, a media tycoon and influential politician, was killed by his own bodyguard after he had publically defended a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was celebrated as a hero by some Islamist groups. Taseer’s friend and former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari told journalists in 2012 that in the aftermath of Taseer's murder not even a "single lawyer" was willing to take his case.
Sher Muhammad Khan, a former judge and human rights campaigner, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that the judge who convicted Qadri in late 2011 left Pakistan after delivering the verdict. "Syed Pervez Ali Shah was sent abroad because the Pakistani government was unable to guarantee his security."
Romana Bashir, head of the Peace and Development Foundation, a nongovernmental organization working for the rights of minorities, said few lawyers are willing to take the cases of non-Muslims accused of blasphemy. "They sense that they will not have any future after taking such cases."
Bashir's organization advocates equal rights for non-Muslim religious minorities, and has demanded a repeal of the Pakistani blasphemy laws. She said that non-Muslims are more vulnerable to accusations of blasphemy than the country’s Muslim citizens. "When a Muslim is accused of blasphemy it usually is limited to one person, while non-Muslim communities pay a heavy price after an individual among them is accused."
Last year a Muslim mob burned an entire Christian neighborhood in Lahore after a young Christian man was accused of blasphemy.
More than 95 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Muslim. During the past few decades the blasphemy laws have emerged as a major grievance of the country's non-Muslims minorities.