To say that the blasphemy law is a sensitive topic in Pakistan is a huge understatement. When it emerged that on October 31 the Supreme Court of Pakistan would declare its verdict on the appeal of Aasia Bibi – a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code on charges of blasphemy – it was a given that the case would be the subject of cautious media focus.
Almost as certain was the fact that the verdict, whether in Aasia Bibi’s favour or otherwise, the discussion that would inevitably ensue, would steer clear of all mention of reform or abuse of this legal provision, the associated intimidation of civil society and the legal fraternity, and the consequences for society and the individuals falsely accused under this law, whether for economic or other reasons or to settle personal vendettas.
According to statistics provided by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, as many as 1,546 individuals have been charged under the blasphemy law in Pakistan from 1987 to date. Of these, the overwhelming majority of cases (1,173) were lodged in the Punjab, followed by Sindh (318), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (37) and Balochistan (6). The majority of the accused (775) have been Muslims.
It is common knowledge that accusing anyone of blasphemy in Pakistan today is akin to passing a death sentence on him or her. Although no one convicted and sentenced to death under the blasphemy law has been executed so far, at least 69 blasphemy accused have been killed in extrajudicial targeted attacks between 1990 and 2018. These include killings in mob attacks as well as the targeting of the accused in police custody and in prison. Mashal Khan’s lynching at a university last year following unfounded accusations of posting blasphemous content on social media is only one of the more recent examples of how many people subscribe to, and justify the actions of the killers.
If a blasphemy accused happens to be from a religious minority community, those sharing the same faith can expect to be fair game. The torching of around 100 homes belonging to the Christian community in Lahore in 2013, and the killing of at least four members of the Ahmadi community in Gujranwala in arson attacks in 2014, are examples of just some of the additional vulnerabilities that members of minority religious faiths face when such charges are levelled against anyone sharing the same faith. Apparent impunity for those responsible has further emboldened the zealots, or criminals, depending on what their motivation to kill was.
Even if zealots do choose the recourse of the law, the invariable attending coercion and intimidation make it almost impossible for the accused to defend themselves at their trial. There is more than one instance of trial judges barring repetition of the allegedly blasphemous comment, stating that would constitute blasphemy. Cross-examination of witnesses becomes both futile and perilous for the lawyer of the accused. The impact of the extensive coercion and intimidation of judges, lawyers or the accused by charged mobs packing the trial courts needs to be seen to be believed.
To the zealots, any lawyer agreeing to represent a blasphemy accused is apparently guilty of the same offence. Advocate Rashid Rehman is a case in point: he was assassinated in Multan in 2014 for legally representing Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer facing blasphemy accusations, in court.
A month prior to his assassination, Rehman had been given death threats inside a courtroom in the presence of the trial judge designated for Junaid’s case. He was told that unless he withdrew from the case he would “not be able to come to court next time because you will not exist any more.” Rehman had earlier said in what now appears to be a premonition of sorts, that defending a blasphemy accused in Pakistan was like “walking into the jaws of death.” And he had promptly drawn the judge’s attention to the latest threat made in his court, but the judge had reportedly remained silent.The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, for which Rashid worked, has complained of “the complete lack of interest of the authorities to go after his killers.”
Meanwhile, Junaid Hafeez, the accused in the case, a Fulbright scholar and at the time of his arrest in March 2013, a visiting faculty member at the Department of English Literature at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University is still languishing in Multan Central Jail. His trial is yet to conclude.
Hafeez’s invitations to women-rights activists to deliver guest lectures on campus and engage with students had apparently delighted many at the university. But it was perhaps this very popularity that had engendered his plight.
After the blasphemy allegation was made, Hafeez’s father faced great difficulty before a lawyer finally agreed to defend him. However, the lawyer quit after the first hearing because he was harassed by scores of lawyers who gathered to protest against him. Rashid Rehman had then dared to defend Hafeez, when no other lawyer was willing to take the case.
After Rehman’s murder, Hafeez had no lawyer for many months until late 2014, when a Lahore-based lawyer decided to take up the case. The lawyer travels from Lahore to the Multan prison for every hearing and prefers not to be mentioned by name. Interestingly, the trial judge has been visibly upset with the prosecution for not producing any solid evidence against Hafeez despite numerous opportunities.
In order to comprehend the perils for anyone meeting or sympathising with a blasphemy accused or publicly calling for a fair trial for them or reform of the law, one need only look at the assassinations of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti.
There are very few defences even against patently false blasphemy accusations. Once such a charge has been levelled against someone, nothing, not even acquittal by a court of law, can undo the damage done. Going into hiding or relocation to another area are usually the only options.
In 2012, a Muslim cleric accused Rimsha Masih, a Christian girl aged between 11 and 14 according to various accounts, of burning pages of the Holy Quran. The case received considerable media attention in part because of Rimsha’s young age and questions about her mental abilities—she was reported to be suffering from Down’s syndrome.
Rimsha was arrested and her family taken into protective custody after an angry mob gathered outside her Christian slum neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, demanding that she be handed over so they could burn her for her crime.
Hundreds of Christians fled their homes in the neighbourhood after the accusation, fearing violent retaliation from extremists.
A fellow cleric later accused Rimsha’s accuser of fabricating evidence against her. The Islamabad High Court ordered that the charges against Rimsha be dropped after police informed the court that they had found no evidence against her.
Such were the apprehensions about her safety that a military helicopter took Rimsha from the prison yard and she went into hiding. Her family continued to receive threats despite the charges being dropped and her lawyer later reported that she and family were forced to secretly move to Canada over security concerns.
The cleric who was arrested for allegedly forging evidence against her was acquitted after a court ruled that the prosecution had not brought forth sufficient evidence to convict him.
UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, briefly visited Pakistan in May 2012. In her report, she specifically noted that “lawyers, in addition to their reluctance to take up such cases because they are afraid for their security, are targeted and forced not to represent their clients properly.”
She highlighted instances of blasphemy cases brought to her attention where “judges have been coerced or pressured to decide against the accused, even without supporting evidence.”
The special rapporteur narrated as an emblematic example, “the case of Judge Pervez Ali Shah who had handed down the death sentence to the person who murdered Salmaan Taseer. The judge was threatened with death and had to flee the country with his family, while the murderer was celebrated by religious extremist groups,” the UN rapporteur stated in her report.
There are numerous other instances of the targeting of judges. Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti of the Lahore High Court was assassinated in 1997 for acquitting two Christians accused of blasphemy.
In a 2015 report on the implementation of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, the International Commission of Jurists underlined the need for independent lawyers to form a foundational pillar of the justice system within states with respect to the rule of law. It stated that without lawyers able and willing to provide services as defence counsel, fair trials were not possible in blasphemy cases.
Returning to the Supreme Court verdict on Aasia Bibi’s appeal on October 31, the blockage of thoroughfares across the country by some religious groups was hardly surprising. Comparisons were swiftly drawn to a similar siege in November last by the same groups, over a change in the oath that a member of parliament is required to take.
The current prime minister, who was then in the opposition and was keen to topple the government, had at that time spoken of his followers’ keenness to join the November 2017 protest.
Now finding himself in power, the prime minister in a televised address to the nation vowed that a small minority would not be allowed to challenge the state’s writ. Leaders of the religious groups in question meanwhile, invited their followers and anyone willing to listen, to assassinate the judges who had decided Asia Bibi’s appeal.
The premier’s stance led some to believe that the state might after all take a stand and send the message that dharnas and roadblocks would not coerce the state into abandoning citizens’ rights and ceding space to extremists.
The manner in which the authorities buckled under the protesters’ demands, however, suggested that there was no end in sight to the official apathy, concessions to, and appeasement of extremists and erosion of the state writ. By pretending to take on the protesters and then meekly submitting to all their demands, the authorities have merely kicked the can down the road and, in the process, strengthened those who had sought to bring the government to its knees. Even as some political leaders spoke of the need to support the Supreme Court decision, and opposition leaders agreed to stand by the prime minister if he took on the rampaging extremists, it seems that stand and the judges who gave the verdict in the Aasia Bibi appeal, have been abandoned.
Any UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers visiting Pakistan in the future might record the repercussions of that. As for the people of Pakistan, including the religious minority communities, the message is clear: they are on their own.