KULLUWAL, Pakistan — With its single dirt road, friendly residents and abundance of drowsing donkeys, this village hardly seems a hotbed of religious radicalism.
Nevertheless, four years ago, dozens of angry townspeople marched and chanted, "Death to the blasphemer!" Their demands were answered. Two years later, court records show, a Muslim teenager named Mohammed Shafique was sentenced to hang for cursing the prophet Mohammed and tossing pages of the Koran onto "cow dung and urine."
Today, an air of regret permeates Kulluwal. Shafique's accusers fled town, and their relatives now say the allegations were lies. Many residents call the case a setup fueled by political and personal rivalries. But as Shafique waits on death row, his appeal stuck in Pakistan's glacial courts, no one is quite sure what to do.
"The situation at that time was emotional. It was the responsibility of the police to sift through the facts and find the truth," said Chaudhry Safraz Ahmed, 42, a community leader whose father was one of Shafique's accusers. "That did not happen. And Shafique is behind bars."
Investigators and witnesses who testified against him have all left town, and no one else recalls seeing Shafique's alleged rampage. Ahmed said his father is ready to recant in court.
Pakistan is in the midst of a heated debate over its ban on blasphemy following the sentencing to death last month of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi. The pope condemned that sentence, which has not yet been carried out. Human rights organizations, meanwhile, have demanded the repeal of a law that they say is used to harass religious and sectarian minorities in this Sunni Muslim-majority nation.
But blasphemy cases, about half of which involve Muslim suspects such as Shafique, also point to a more fundamental problem with grave implications for the nation's U.S.-backed fight against militancy: Pakistan's broken justice system, corrupt and lacking in expertise, often rewards vendettas and encourages radicalism.
In this system, religious extremism is less an epidemic than a menacing shadow — just as it is across Pakistan, an unstable democracy where Islamist threats often eclipse the majority's more peaceful views.
The law against blasphemy — which encompasses vaguely worded prohibitions on insults against Islam — gives radicals a tool with which to bully those who don't share their hard-line religious views. Legal experts say lawyers, witnesses and authorities are frequently intimidated into helping to enforce the law.
"These are the kind of provisions that allow space for extremists to act with impunity," Ali Dayan Hasan, a Pakistan-based representative for Human Rights Watch, said of the blasphemy law. "This country is, in that sense, at a crossroads where it is time for people to stand up."
Just what happened on the evening of March 17, 2006, in this agrarian corner of Punjab province remains in dispute. It took a court in the nearby city of Sialkot 73 hearings over 27 months to gather enough testimony for a verdict. Lawyers' strikes, witnesses' absences and a funeral caused delays. In the end, the key evidence against Shafique, now 22, was witness accounts and soiled scraps of pages from a Koran, which the judge deemed impossible to fake.
"The question arises whether … a Muslim can think to smear the pages of the Holy Book with cow dung and urine just to create an evidence to involve his opponents," the judge wrote in 2008. "Not an iota of evidence has been produced by the accused in this regard."
But Shafique's family, along with many others in Kulluwal, cite two reasons for such a plot. Shafique, an aspiring electrician, had accused his brother's wife of adultery. And her alleged paramour had powerful allies, among them a town politician with his own motive: Shafique's brother was challenging him in a village election.
According to court records, two main accusers — the politician and Ahmed's father — did not testify. Four young men who did gave nearly identical statements about seeing Shafique curse the prophet and rip the Koran.
The court sentenced Shafique to join about 7,600 others in Pakistan on death row, about 60 of whom are convicted blasphemers, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The country has not executed anyone since 2008, and blasphemy cases are often overturned on appeal.
Blasphemy was outlawed during British colonial rule but was made a capital crime in the 1980s. Now, the law is being scrutinized; a bill in parliament would shorten sentences, require evidence that the crime was committed intentionally and introduce punishment for false accusation.