October Issue 2014
A Look Back in Despair
Barring the rare exceptions, the last discernible one being in the year 2010, successive governments have steered clear of or actively avoided the topic. Civil society has tried to raise its voice every now and then, but failed to spur any reform of the law and has largely ended up preaching to the converted. Questioning this law has long been a perilous undertaking in the country, the assassination of then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer by his guard being just one case in point.
If the governor of our most populous, and supposedly the most powerful, province could be mowed down in 2011 for criticising the law, in 2014 the madness had grown to a point where defending a person accused of this charge quite literally became a capital offence; it became an act of blasphemy in its own right.
In May this year, Rashid Rehman, a lawyer and a respected human rights defender working with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in Multan, was shot and killed by armed men who walked into the HRCP office. Rashid was targeted for daring to step forward to defend a blasphemy accused university lecturer, Junaid Hafeez, who no other lawyer was willing to represent; the first lawyer engaged by the family of the accused had withdrawn following threats. The trial was being conducted inside the Multan prison in view of threats to the life of the accused. At a hearing on April 9, a prosecution lawyer and three other men openly threatened to kill Rashid if he did not drop the case. According to the details brought to the Punjab government’s notice by HRCP, the exact words uttered were: “You will not be here at the next hearing because you will not exist anymore.” Rashid drew the judge’s attention to the threat, but the then judge remained silent. HRCP wrote to the Punjab government asking it to ensure Rashid’s safety and take action against the men who had issued the threat. But despite repeated reminders, the government heeded neither of the two requests. Rashid was murdered on May 7. The following day, when funeral prayers were being offered for him, handbills were distributed in Multan stating that Rashid had “met his rightful end” and warned lawyers to “fear God and think twice before engaging in such acts.” This was no spur of the moment killing. The handbills had apparently been printed even before Rashid was killed.
The message the killers wanted to convey was obvious, and the silence of the Punjab government did not help matters either. There was no attempt to bring the killers to justice or ensure deterrence. In fact, all it did was suspend some police officers. There is no question that the government’s inability to openly condemn the brazen killing amounted to encouragement to terrorists. Further, no enquiry has been held against the professional instigators. Civil society organisations had long been saying that a fair trial for a blasphemy charge was no longer possible. Now it seems that the mere trial of the accused, its quality notwithstanding, is out of the question. That did not seem to be the case even some years ago, when a judge of the Lahore High Court was murdered because he had the moral courage to acquit a person charged under the blasphemy law. Now the accusers pack courtrooms with mobs, and the trial judges either give the mob what they want, recuse themselves or keep adjourning the case in the hope that they would be transferred before they have to burden their conscience with deciding the matter.
There are many now who point out that this assessment is true only for Punjab, and impunity and what some call official apathy are not as pervasive elsewhere. Perhaps that may be true, for now, but with progressive regression on this scale and horrific crimes being committed in the name of religion, the belief that this cancer would not spread, and soon, needs generous doses of optimism and naivety. Anyone endowed with even a modicum of observation power has seen how blasphemy charges have become an excuse for violence, grabbing property and settling personal issues.
The message could not be more unambiguous. As far as blasphemy is concerned, the levelling of the charge suffices and there is no reason to waste time on trivial issues like due process or judicial determination. Anyone who stands in the way in any manner is guilty by association and if the accused is part of a minority religious group, as was the case with the three Ahmadis killed in Gujranwala in late July, then the whole group is at fault. This, irrespective of the fact that the deceased had no association with the accused and the charge had not even been substantiated.
Barring a miracle, the official silence and ceding of space by the state will further increase the overall trend of abuse of this law and faith-based violence. Those that survive would be even more traumatised. The pessimism of the realists will grow. None of this should surprise anyone. This is precisely what happens when matters that need to be confronted are swept under the carpet.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue as part of the cover story.