An 82-year-old Muslim prisoner of conscience in Pakistan who was supported by Trump evangelical adviser Johnnie Moore has been freed after three years imprisonment for blasphemy.
Ahmadiyya Muslim Abdul Shakoor was released from prison Monday after a high court in Punjab reduced his eight-year sentence for the alleged crime of selling commentary on his Ahmadiyya religious beliefs.
As adherents to a minority sect of Islam that promotes peace and tolerance, Ahmadis face severe persecution in Pakistan, which is about 97 percent Sunni Muslim. Pakistan's constitution even declares Ahmadis to be non-Muslims and the country’s penal code prevents Ahmadis from claiming that they are Muslims.
Shakoor, the Indian-born manager of a bookshop and optician store in the Punjab province, was arrested on Dec. 5, 2015, after officials from the Punjab police and Pakistan’s Elite Force raided Shakoor’s bookshop. He was taken along with the store’s assistant, Mazhar Abbas. He was accused of selling Ahmadiyya commentary on the Quran.
At Shakoor’s trial, officers who raided the bookstore were the only witnesses. Prosecutors alleged that a letter from the Ahmadiyya director of public affairs was sent to Shakoor days earlier telling him that selling Ahmadiyya literature had been banned.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Ahmadiyya leaders have said that the prosecution fabricated the letter to support their argument in Shakoor’s case. Ahmadiyya leaders even noted that the ban on literature in question in the case didn’t even go into effect until Jan. 20, 2016, after the trial had concluded.
Throughout, Shakoor maintained that he didn’t distribute Ahmaddiya literature but admitted to possessing the literature. However, possession of Ahmadiyya literature is not a crime in Pakistan.
Last year, USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore, an evangelical communications executive who has long advocated for persecuted believers overseas, adopted Shakoor as part of USCIRF’s Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project.
The project was launched in 2017 to fulfill a congressional requirement mandated by the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016 for USCIRF to list names of prisoners of conscience. Through the project, each USCIRF commissioner adopts a prisoner of conscience that they personally advocate for.
“Abdul Shakoor’s release comes as welcome news to those of us who have been engaging with Pakistan’s government and civil society on issues related to religious freedom and peaceful coexistence between religious communities,” Moore said in a statement. “We hope and pray this once again becomes the trend in Pakistani society, and no longer the exception.”
As Moore noted, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan declared last month at the World Government Summit in Dubai that he has a desire to reform Pakistan.
"He remembered a more pluralistic Pakistan of his youth, and he professed his desire to have a society that protected humanity, embraced the rule of law, and saw knowledge as a sacred duty,” Moore stressed.
“Recalling the golden age of Medina, he said that these values are not at enmity with a religious and mainly Islamic society. As I tweeted then, ‘one of the best ways he can prove his reform agenda is real — taking the country back to the era he fondly describes is ... Promote Tolerance, Embrace Religious Freedom, and Guard Minorities.’”
Shakoor’s release comes just days after the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed condemned Pakistan’s treatment of Ahmadis.
“Ahmadis have been subject to systematic persecution by means of State-sanctioned discrimination and other repressive measures, including the closing of their businesses, schools and places of worship and the imprisonment of those who violate the restrictive laws imposed on the community,” Shaheed wrote in a report submitted earlier this month.
Pakistan is also notorious as being one of the worst nations in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians.
According to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List, Pakistan ranks as the fifth-worst nation in the world for Christian persecution.
Last month, an enraged Muslim mob reportedly attacked over 200 Christian families after four women were falsely accused of blasphemy.
Earlier this year, the Pakistan Supreme Court upheld its decision to acquit Christian mother Asia Bibi, who spent nearly a decade in prison and was sentenced to death after she was accused of blasphemy by Muslim co-workers.