The arrest of a foreigner under the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, which can lead to the death penalty, is rare and could strain an otherwise warming relationship between China and Pakistan.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A Chinese worker on a dam project in northern Pakistan has been arrested and imprisoned on accusations of blasphemy, in a rare case of a foreigner being swept up in Pakistan’s harsh and controversial blasphemy laws.
The Chinese man was identified in a Pakistani police report as “Mr. Tian” and described as a transportation supervisor at the Dasu hydropower project, led by China’s Gezhouba Group construction and engineering company.
The police report, which was obtained by The New York Times, said the man was on a field visit along with a team of Pakistani workers over the weekend when he was accused of making blasphemous remarks and gestures against God and the Prophet Muhammad after afternoon prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Under Pakistani law, a conviction on those accusations could bring the death penalty.
Officials said the Chinese man was being transported to a jail near the city of Abbottabad for his safety, and faced court hearings to determine whether he would be indicted.
News of the accusations spread quickly, leading to protests on Sunday that were dispersed by security officials in the Kohistan region of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province.
The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad has not yet commented on the arrest. But the action could strain diplomatic relations between Pakistan and China, which have drawn closer in recent years.
China has been a heavy investor in development projects in Pakistan for years under the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, and the protection of Chinese employees there has been a challenge for Islamabad. China has repeatedly urged the Pakistani authorities to ensure the safety of its citizens in the country after separatist groups and Islamist militants have repeatedly targeted Chinese interests.
Now, the arrest of the Chinese worker is again illuminating the tensions within an otherwise close economic friendship. One of the protests involved demonstrators surrounding a camp for Chinese workers in Barseen, Kohistan, and throwing stones before they were dispersed by security forces firing into the air, officials said. Enraged protesters also staged a sit-in on the Karakoram Highway, causing hundreds of vehicles to get stuck. The protest ended after assurances by the local authorities of action against the accused man.
Rights groups have long campaigned against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, but accusations and convictions have not ebbed under successive governments. People accused of blasphemy frequently become targets of mob violence and have been beaten or killed in growing numbers in recent years.
In many cases, the accusations have risen out of personal feuds, and religious minority groups — especially Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis — face those charges in disproportionate numbers.
The blasphemy allegations in the country have resulted in a wave of violence, including the vandalization of Hindu temples and neighborhoods, the torching of police stations by furious mobs, the lynching of a student on a university campus, and the arrest and killing of teachers and senior politicians.
Officials who have dared to speak out against the blasphemy laws have found themselves targeted, as well. In 2011, two politicians were murdered in similar episodes. Salman Taseer, then a provincial governor, was killed by a bodyguard after expressing opposition to blasphemy laws. And, Shahbaz Bhatti, a federal minister, was murdered for opposing the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibi, a Christian convicted of verbally insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Though Ms. Bibi was acquitted in 2019, she fled Pakistan, and her lawyer has been receiving death threats.