Javaid, 60, accused of converting a Sunni to the Ahmadi religious movement 2018, weeps as he is interviewed by AFP at a location in Pakistan’s province of Punjab. The communities most at threat from abuses of the blasphemy law are religious minorities, including the Ahmadi sect – whose belief in a prophet after Mohammed is viewed as heresy by most mainstream Muslims. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem
Inside a small Lahore courtroom, the packed crowd attending the hearing of a blasphemy case against a Christian pastor is most notable for the absence of hardline clerics shouting insults and demanding the death penalty.
For years, they would attend such hearings in force, seeking to pressure magistrates to convict and impose the severest sentences on anyone facing what is an incendiary charge in Pakistan.
But one year after the conclusion of the country’s most high-profile blasphemy case and a government crackdown against extremists who exploited it for political ends, the clerics are largely gone.
“Before Asia Bibi, dozens of maulanas [religious scholars] were coming to my hearings,” said the pastor Adnan Prince, who stands accused of desecrating the Koran.
“After that, they didn’t come anymore,” Prince said.
The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 and acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2018, shone a global spotlight on the use – and abuse – of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
Her release was pounced on by the hardline Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP, or Movement at the Service of the Prophet), which was formed five years ago and gained influence by weaponizing the blasphemy issue.
The party spearheaded violent street protests against Bibi’s acquittal and called for the Supreme Court justices to be killed, but crossed the reddest of red lines by urging the overthrow of the country’s powerful army chief.
A government crackdown ensued that netted thousands of TLP loyalists – a move that Prince’s lawyer, Asad Jamal, credits for the absence of the maulanas.
“The voice of the [religious] far right has been muffled,” Jamal said, adding that the crackdown had sent a clear signal to the extremists who abandoned their courtroom lobbying.
But if that lowered the intimidating decibel levels in court, “the feeling of fear is still there” among the magistrates, Jamal stressed.
According to one former judge who spoke to AFP, magistrates in Pakistan’s lower courts remain very vulnerable to intimidation in blasphemy cases, given that they often live among the communities they serve.
Due to the risk of being labeled blasphemers themselves if they acquit, they tend to “always convict,” said the former judge who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A recent example saw a university professor, Junaid Hafeez, sentenced to death in December for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
Given that the first lawyer who agreed to represent Hafeez was murdered, his family argued there was never any prospect of receiving a fair hearing.
“Could any judge in such circumstances take the risk of doing justice?” they said in a statement.
Condemning the sentence, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said blasphemy laws continued to be “heavily misused” and the judicial process was “ridden by delays and pressures at the level of the lower judiciary.”
The contention that many guilty rulings by magistrates in blasphemy cases are flawed has been borne out by the significant number that are overturned on appeal by higher courts.
But Pakistan’s clogged justice system means the appeal process can take years.
Last September, the Supreme Court acquitted Wajih-ul-Hassan after he had spent 18 years on death row for allegedly insulting the Prophet.
And even after release from prison, freedom is a relative term when it comes to allegations of blasphemy and the vigilante violence that often surrounds them.
“In many people’s minds, even though he’s been acquitted, he’s still guilty,” said his lawyer, Nadeem Anthony. “So he has to live in hiding.”
Prime minister’s support
The communities most at threat from abuses of the blasphemy law are religious minorities, including the Ahmadi sect whose belief in a prophet after Mohammed is viewed as heresy by most mainstream Muslims.
“The vulnerability is still there and it is going to remain as long as the law is there and people accept its legitimacy,” said a spokesman for the sect, Usman Ahmad.
Blasphemy is a hugely inflammatory charge in Pakistan. Merely suggesting reform of the law can trigger violence, most notably in the case of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s most populous province, who was shot dead by his own bodyguard in 2011.
Hanged four years ago, the bodyguard was hailed as a martyr by his supporters who built a popular shrine in his memory on the outskirts of Islamabad.
No wonder then that politicians are mostly extremely reluctant to speak out against any aspect of the blasphemy law, and Prime Minister Imran Khan notably voiced his full support for the legislation during his successful 2018 election campaign.
Defending itself against accusations of pandering to extremists, the government points to the support it gave Asia Bibi after her acquittal, despite the intense pressure brought by groups like the TLP.
Bibi left Pakistan for a new life in Canada in May last year.
Extremists represent just “one percent” of the Pakistani population, insisted government spokeswoman Firdous Ashiq Awan.
“A minority of people can’t reflect the mindset of a society,” she told AFP.
Nevertheless, the TLP secured more than 2.2 million votes in the 2018 general elections and is hopeful of winning seats in local polls later this year.
The party demonstrated its influence last month by successfully blocking the release of a new film by prominent director Sarmad Khosat on the grounds that it contained blasphemous content.
“Blasphemy is a point through which we attract people,” Rehman Ali Tarar, a prospective TLP candidate, told AFP at a recent rally with thousands of party supporters in Lahore.
#pakistan #minority #blasphemy
In a welcome move, the government of Pakistan has handed over a 200-year old temple to its rightful owner: the country’s Hindu community. Located in Zhob district of Balochistan, the temple had been illegally occupied in 1947 following partition. For the past 30 years, the four-room temple was also used as a government school but it was vacated last year, and the school was relocated.
The keys to the temple were handed over to Hindu community leaders by Maulana Allah Dad Kakar, a local religious scholar, and leader of Jamiat Ulema Islam at a ceremony held outside the building. Saleem Taha, Zhob’s deputy commissioner, apologized for the 72-year delay in handing over the temple to the Hindu community but made assurances that the building would be restored to its original condition.
The move – hailed by the Hindu community – comes on the heels of an Indian Supreme Court ruling last November handing over the site of the historic Babri Mosque to Hindus for the construction of a temple following a prolonged legal battle.
On December 25, just a few months after being elected to office in July polls, Prime Minister Imran Khan said in a Twitter post that his government would “ensure that our minorities are treated as equal citizens.”
The latest development is part of government plans to reclaim and restore 400 temples across the country illegally occupied by land grabbers and return them to Hindus. A survey conducted across the country found there were 428 Hindu temples at the time of Partition and 408 of them were encroached upon after 1990. According to a recent government estimate, at least 11 temples in Sindh, four in Punjab, three in Balochistan and two in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were operational in 2019.
Last year, the government said that it had decided to reopen Hindu temples across the country in phases, fulfilling the longstanding demand of the Hindu community that their places of worship be restored to them. When Hindus left Pakistan during partition and in the mid-60’s, many temples were lost to encroachment. Even in places where some Hindu families stayed back, some influential people occupied temple land.
The process to reclaim temples began with two historic shrines in Sialkot and Peshawar. Sialkot has a functioning Jagannath Temple and now the 1,000-year-old Shivalaya Teja Singh is being restored. Hindus had stopped visiting the Shivalaya (shawala) after a mob attack during Babri mosque demolition protests in 1992.
In Peshawar, courts had ordered reopening of the Gorakhnath Temple and it has been declared a heritage site. From now on, two to three such historic and heritage temple complexes will be restored by the government of Pakistan every year.
This week we are told of another encouraging development. PTI has suspended the general secretary of its Lahore chapter over posters that featured an insulting slogan targeting Hindus. Mian Akram Usman put up the poster in connection with Kashmir Solidarity Day, which insulted the Hindu community.
In the show-cause notice to Mian Akram after his suspension, the party noted that the words that appeared on the posters violated the party’s policy. Mian Akram Usman has, in turn, blamed the printer for the derogatory posters, saying he had wanted to target Prime Minister Narendra Modi but the printer “mistakenly” substituted Modi’s name with the word “Hindu” “I apologise [to] all peaceful Hindus living on both sides of the border. All posters [were] removed immediately when they came [to] my notice. I’m not the one who [is] stuck on mistakes,” Mian Akram Usman tweeted.
Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari in a tweet said Mian Akram Usman had been “reprimanded and posters were taken off immediately”. Mazari termed it “a shameful and ignorant approach by the individual”.
Both the restoration of temples and the punishment of individuals who indulge in hate speech are encouraging developments and must be appreciated. At the same time other demands of the Hindu community need to be looked at with urgency. The most pressing issue is the forceful conversion of Hindu girls and their marriage to Muslim men. This is an practice that continues to bring a bad name to the country and causes much scare in the religious minority. Hundreds of girls have fallen victim to this practice. We need to put an end to it.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2020.
The Hindu population of Pakistan makes up a small minority of about 1.96 million, or 1.2 per cent, of the total population. An overwhelming majority of the Hindus (96 per cent of the total Hindu population in Pakistan) live in rural areas of Sindh. There are heavy concentrations of Hindus in Sanghar and Tharpakar district, which borders with India. There are also small pockets of Hindus in interior Baluchistan and Punjab. The Hindus of Pakistan – residing in the interior of Sindh or Baluchistan – belong principally to the so-called untouchable class, the Scheduled Caste Hindus. Many of them are landless bonded labourers, working on the lands of big Sindhi landlords (known as Jagirdars). Those who live in towns and cities also have a menial standing and are generally employed as sweepers or Jamadars.
Sindh at one time had a very sizeable Hindu population; however, at the time of partition large numbers migrated to the Indian side of the border. The partition of India in August 1947 resulted in genocidal campaigns against religious minorities, with the Hindus in Pakistan suffering most. In addition to the genocide, several million Hindus were forced to become refugees. Those who decided to stay behind in Pakistan after partition had to face constitutional limitations and social stigma. One of the country’s principal and primary constitutional documents, the Objective Resolution of March 1949 makes provision for non-Muslims to freely profess and practise their religion, and this tolerant spirit is reflected in the provisions of the 1956, 1962 and the 1973 constitutions. However, despite the presence of these constitutional guarantees, the Hindu community both prior to and even after 1971 has been a continual target of suspicion and has often been treated as a fifth column. Political expediency has allowed Hindus to be treated as scapegoats for the general incompetence of governments in power.
While Islam has been used as the great rallying force for political ends, conversely, and for the same purposes, Hindus have been treated as anti-state and anti-Islamic elements, discriminated against and persecuted, arguably becoming victims of genocide during the secessionist war of 1971. Hindus generally lack equal access to education, employment and social advancement.
The tiny minority of Hindus that remains in the truncated Pakistan of today, continues to find itself vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The constitutional amendments introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq have adversely affected the position of the Hindu minority. More significantly, the rise in religious extremism within South Asia, with periods of tense political relations between India and Pakistan, has led to greater violence and physical attacks on Hindus. Thus the Hindus of Pakistan frequently suffer from outbursts of anti-Hindu sentiments generated through a backlash of violations against the rights of Muslims in India. The Babri Masjid incident (December 1992) provides a tragic example, when anger at the demolition of the mosque in Ayodhya (India) was vented against the Hindus and their properties in Pakistan. It is estimated that between 2-8 December 1992 about 120 Hindu temples were destroyed in various parts of Pakistan. In a number of instances, gangs of frenzied men entered these temples, smashed the idols of revered Hindu gods and goddesses, snatched the jewels that adorned them, and made off with the charity boxes containing donations. Several shops were looted or burnt, with the cost of damages running into millions of rupees. More than 500 non-Muslims, primarily Hindu families, were victimized and tortured; angry crowds entered their houses, destroyed their furniture and household goods and took away their savings and jewellery. There were also physical attacks on members of the Hindu community. A number of Hindus were killed, including a family of six who were burned to death in Loralia. Compensation for the damage to life and property has not been forthcoming.
Members of the Hindu minority in Pakistan fear persistent harassment at the hands of religious extremists and complain that there is little official protection accorded to them. Hindu activists argue that ‘secret files are kept on them and their integrity is always in question. They are not allowed into the armed forces, the judiciary or responsible positions in the civil service’. These allegations are substantiated by the facts, which reflect an almost negligible Hindu presence in the higher echelons of the administration, bureaucracy and armed forces. Discrimination and prejudice against the Hindus is reinforced by the religious orthodoxy, within educational institutions as well as by the state-controlled media. As a consequence of the oppression and discrimination, the last two decades have seen a steady exodus of Hindus from Pakistan. This exodus, however, has left behind a community that is most vulnerable and in urgent need of socio-economic protection.
A significant proportion of the Hindus within the province of Sindh are the so-called untouchables, the Scheduled Caste Hindus. As haris these Scheduled Caste Hindus make up part of the pool of landless bonded labour of the province of Sindh. Sindh’s agricultural wealth, to a large extent, has depended on the intensive and strenuous work of bonded labour in producing hugely profitable cash crops such as sugar cane. While huge profits are made by the wealthy landlords, this landless bonded labour, consisting of substantial number of Scheduled Caste Hindus, continues to suffer from abject poverty. They remain tied to the land where they are forced to work literally as slaves. The landlords ensure that these bonded labourers and their future generations remain illiterate and unable in any way to challenge the unfair system of exploitation. The National Assembly of Pakistan abolished bonded labour through the Bonded Labour Abolition Act 1992. However, the banned practices continue to thrive in many parts of Sindh; officials remain reluctant to interfere for fear of incurring the wrath of powerful ruling families.
Hindus who do manage to break the vicious cycle of repression of bonded labour, nevertheless fail to gain any support from the general community. Existing taboos and rampant discrimination ensure that their employment prospects are confined to menial labour as Jamadars. Recent reports suggest increasing harassment and intimidation of women belonging to these Hindu communities. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, during 1998 a number of disturbing cases came to light where Hindu women have been kidnapped, raped or forcibly converted to Islam. With overt, state-sponsored discrimination and repression, the Hindus of Pakistan remain deprived of their fundamental human rights. The Hindus are ‘unwanted’ and ‘unwelcome’ and continue to be associated with India. During the recent armed uprising in Baluchistan (2005-6) members of the small Hindu community were targeted and attacked by the Security Forces. All Hindus residing in the town of Dera Bugti were forced to take refuge either in the Sui region of Baluchistan or other provinces of Pakistan. The attacks resulted in the deaths of 33 Hindus, mostly men and young children.
As with Christians, Hindus too constantly face the issue of forced conversion. Minority groups have expressed concerns about the persecution of Hindus and threats to their places of worship. In 2007 the only Hindu temple in Lahore was demolished to make way for a commercial building.
By Najam U Din |
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.