Pakistani academic Junaid Hafeez sentenced to death for blasphemy

University professor Hafeez found guilty of having insulted Prophet Muhammad and Quran verbally and on Facebook.

Pakistani academic sentenced to death for ‘blasphemy’
Amnesty International, a UK-based rights group, called Saturday's verdict 'a travesty' [Asim Tanveer/AP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – A court in Pakistan has convicted a university lecturer of blasphemy and sentenced him to death in a case rights groups have long cited as emblematic of fair trial concerns in such prosecutions in the country.

Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in the central Pakistani city of Multan, was accused of having insulted Islam‘s Prophet Muhammad and its holy book, the Quran, verbally and on Facebook in 2013.

A court in Multan found him guilty and sentenced him to death on Saturday after a lengthy trial that saw frequent delays and transfers of judges.

Hafeez has been held in solitary confinement due to security concerns since 2014 when his lawyer, prominent rights activist Rashid Rehman, was murdered.

The attack came after Rehman had been threatened in open court by religious leaders and lawyers associated with the prosecution.

The trial has been held in a high-security jail since then.

Hafeez’s current lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, described the atmosphere in court hearings as “intimidating” before adding that the professor would be appealing the verdict at the Lahore High Court.

“The failure to apprehend those who shot Rehman dead signaled impunity for other would-be vigilantes,” Hafeez’s lawyer and family said in a statement released after Saturday’s verdict.

“Could any judge in such circumstances take the risk of doing justice? Those who could [be] were transferred from the district or brought under pressure by groups of lawyers operating as mafias.”

Zia-ur-Rehman, the prosecutor in the case, denied allegations that the prosecution attempted to delay the case or intimidate the judge, telling Al Jazeera that “this was a very fair trial” after the verdict was announced.

Taking a toll

Hafeez’s lawyer said the conditions of his incarceration were taking a toll on the young academic.

“He has been very agitated. He cannot talk very coherently,” he said. “When I used to meet him in the beginning [of the case], he would meet me with a smile and had a lot of passion … after so many years in solitary confinement, it has an effect on a person.”

Amnesty International, a United Kingdom-based rights group, called Saturday’s verdict “a travesty”.

“Junaid Hafeez’s death sentence is a gross miscarriage of justice,” said Rabia Mehmood, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty. “The verdict of the Multan court is extremely disappointing and surprising. Junaid’s entire case and lengthy trial has been unfair and a travesty.”

In a statement issued on Saturday, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said it was “dismayed by the verdict”, adding that “HRCP believes that the blasphemy laws are heavily misused”.

“In five years, at least eight judges have heard Mr Hafeez’s case, making a fair trial virtually impossible. Meanwhile, he has undergone six years’ imprisonment in solitary confinement,” added the statement.

“HRCP reposes its faith in the higher judiciary and hopes that the verdict will be overturned in appeal.”

Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where insulting the Quran or Prophet Muhammad can result in life imprisonment or a death sentence. Increasingly, blasphemy accusations also carry the threat of extrajudicial violence by mobs or in targeted attacks.

At least 75 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy accusations in Pakistan since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally. The murdered include those accused of the crime, people acquitted by the courts, their lawyers, family members and judges connected to their cases.

Last year, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of committing blasphemy and held on death row for nine years, in a landmark ruling that vindicated fair trial concerns expressed by rights groups in blasphemy cases.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera