Living in fear under Pakistan’s blasphemy law

In Pakistan, 17 people are on death row for blasphemy, and dozens more have been extrajudicially murdered.

Human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman was murdered for defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy [EPA]

Lahore, Pakistan – Rashid Rehman, a 53-year-old lawyer, was known throughout the south of Pakistan’s Punjab province as a staunch defender of human rights, representing peasants, workers, women and members of religious minorities in cases against their alleged oppressors for over 20 years.

When people had nowhere else to turn, local rights activists say, they came to Rehman.

But that door has now been closed. Late on May 7, Rehman was shot and killed in his Multan office by unidentified assailants.

His crime? Defending Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer who had been accused of committing blasphemy by hardline student groups in March last year.

“Rashid was the master of so many virtues. He had a huge heart, and he had a great intelligence. He even made people laugh. He was a very good man, but he was also serious and committed to his work. He lived for it all, and died for it,” Zaman Khan, an official at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, of which Rehman was the Multan co-ordinator, told Al Jazeera.

Rehman, who had earlier been threatened in open court by the complainants in the case, has become the latest person to be extrajudicially murdered in a case related to Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, which often rile public sentiment.

Since 1990, at least 60 people have been killed outside the Pakistani justice system in cases relating to blasphemy, according to the Islamabad-based Centre Research and Security Studies (CRSS). The list includes lawyers, alleged blasphemers and even politicians calling for amendments to the law. That last category includes former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and former Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws have in fact fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence.

by - Jan Wetzel, Amnesty International

Judges and lawyers under threat

Critics say the laws, at least one section of which carries a mandatory death penalty, create an atmosphere of religious intolerance.

“While purporting to protect Islam and the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have in fact fostered a climate of religiously motivated violence, and are used indiscriminately against both Muslims and non-Muslims,” said Jan Wetzel, an Amnesty International researcher. “They violate the basic human rights of freedom of religion and thought. These laws are often used to make unfounded malicious accusations to settle personal scores in land and business disputes [and] are also arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary.”

While the core of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to 1860, during British rule, military ruler Zia-ul-Haq made a raft of changes in the late 1970s and 1980s. As a result, while there were only seven blasphemy cases lodged from 1851-1947, there were 327 such cases from 1977-2012, according to the CRSS.

Currently, there are at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy on death row in Pakistan, with another 19 serving life sentences.

The issue runs deeper than the volume of cases, however. Many lawyers told Al Jazeera that because blasphemy cases often inflame public sentiment, they are seldom dealt with fairly by the courts.

“The main issue that you face is a general mindset within the court, especially after Salman Taseer’s murder, that it’s a matter that has become so sensitive that nobody really wants to touch it,” said Muhammad Ali*, a Lahore-based lawyer who frequently deals with blasphemy cases.

Ali said the burden of proof in blasphemy cases was low and that despite the fact that it was difficult to prove blasphemy allegations, lower court judges – often under threat themselves – felt pressure to convict.

“If someone commits murder, you know there is a body. You see a body. You know by looking at it that … there was some wrong done. With blasphemy, there is no real proof needed. It’s clearly his word against yours, and based on that little thing you are killing someone. The burden to prove is so easy and open. Especially mentally ill people who have been accused, they cannot defend themselves. It’s too easy to prove someone to be a blasphemer,” he said.

That’s an assessment with which Fatima Butt*, a lawyer currently representing several people either alleged to have committed blasphemy or convicted of having done so, agrees. She said, however, that the fact that blasphemy cases often gain traction in the public sphere is pushing judges towards convicting the defendants.

“There are two kinds of judges in this blasphemy field. [There are] those who genuinely have their hands tied behind their backs, because there is a threat to their lives. But there’s a fair amount of lawyers, prosecutors and judges who are making a name for themselves by … sentencing blasphemy convicts,” she told Al Jazeera.

One of Butt’s clients is Muhammad Asghar, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who was convicted of having committed blasphemy by a Rawalpindi court in January, and now faces the gallows.

Butt listed a litany of irregularities in Asghar’s case, from the constitution of a medical board to certify his sanity in the presence of a mob calling for him to be publically lynched, to an adversarial judge who, at one point, kicked Asghar’s legal team out of the court.

“We were forcibly kicked out of court. Our client was screaming that he did not agree to this, that [the state-appointed counsel] was not his attorney,” Butt said.

Pakistan’s religious parties all support the blasphemy laws in their current form. Jalil Jan, a spokesperson for the Jamaat Ulema Islami-Fazl (JUI-F), a religious political party, said the laws “are part of the constitution of Pakistan, and we made it a part of the constitution with much difficulty … We will fight to keep the law as it is. This is Allah’s work, to fight against those who would insult the prophet.”

“The state is the only one who can punish people, but the state must punish on [blasphemy] cases,” Jan told Al Jazeera. “If it does not, then these sorts of incidents [of vigilantism] will definitely happen.”

In September 2013 the Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that advises parliament on the Islamic aspects of laws, recommended against any amendment to the blasphemy laws.

‘A tool to settle scores’

Butt, like Rashid Rehman in Multan, has faced death threats throughout her representation of Asghar. She said that when it came to appeals, she was often unable to find high court judges who were willing to hear the case, due to its sensitive nature. This is a common problem, lawyers in the field say, and one that other high-profile blasphemy case convicts are also facing.

This has become a tool to settle personal scores. You will not see any genuineness in any of these cases.

by - Zaman Khan, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

That unwillingness to be associated with the case does not seem to extend to the other side. For example, Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman who shot dead Salman Taseer for his opposition to the blasphemy laws, was showered with rose petals by many lawyers on his way to his court proceedings.

Qadri was convicted of murder, and is imprisoned in the same Rawalpindi jail where Asghar is incarcerated. The former policeman has developed a following as a religious hero, lawyers say. “Mumtaz Qadri, his cell is about 12 metres away from the blasphemy cell. So the blasphemy convicts are kept near him, where he can roam around freely, while they can’t roam around anywhere because they’re considered to be ‘under threat’,” said one lawyer who frequents the Adiala Jail premises to meet clients.

One lawyer said that the threat of lynching for those accused of blasphemy, whether they are in or out of jail, “is very real”.

Lawyers also said that blasphemy laws are often used as a mask for other disputes. In Asghar’s case, for example, the complainant who accused him of blasphemy was also engaged in a property dispute with him.

“This has become a tool to settle personal scores. You will not see any genuineness in any of these cases,” said Khan, the HRCP official.

Threat of ‘vigilante justice’

International law experts, meanwhile, including those at the United Nation’s Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), say blasphemy laws are incompatible with human rights commitments.

“Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)],” the UNHRC has said.

Pakistan blasphemy laws face scrutiny

“Pakistan’s laws and practice are particularly egregious [with regards to blasphemy], with its constantly-abused law penalising blasphemous acts with the death penalty or life in prison. In addition to state enforcement, mobs feel enabled, under the cover of this law, to mete out vigilante justice against individuals deemed to have committed blasphemy,” noted the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in its annual report this year.

Despite those commitments, however, the blasphemy cases in Pakistan continue to pile up, often for seemingly innocuous incidents. The CRSS has documented cases in which blasphemy cases have been lodged due to the design of an Ahmadi mosque, the throwing away of a visiting card in a dust bin, a Christian pastor quoting the Holy Quran, the naming of a child and even spelling errors.

In the latest example, Pakistani police on May 12 lodged a blasphemy case against 68 lawyers protesting against the allegedly illegal detention by police of a colleague. Their crime? Raising slogans against the local police chief, Umar Daraz. Activists from a banned Sunni Muslim sectarian group who lodged the case said the slogans hurt their religious sentiments, because “Umar” is also the name of a revered follower of the Prophet Muhammad.

And for those who protect the rights of alleged blasphemers, there appears to be no-one to protect them.

“With blasphemy, whenever I go to court, I am always considered to be the enemy … I was actually asked in one of the cases, ‘How much money have you sold yourself for?’ There are people there representing murderers and rapists, and that’s fine, but you represent a blasphemer and people then question your integrity. That question should never come up with a lawyer,” said Ali.

“[Rashid Rehman’s killing] sends a message that there should not be rule of law. What was his fault? His fault was that he was fighting rule of law. He was offering legal help to his client to give him access to justice under the law. That was his biggest fault, and that is why he gave his life,” said Khan.

(“Muhammad Ali” and “Fatima Butt” are pseudonyms. Al Jazeera is not naming the lawyers quoted in this report, due to concerns for their safety.)

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim 

Source: Al Jazeera