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The tyranny of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Pakistan on 16 May 2014
Location : Pakistan | Source : Daily Times.

The recent assassination of lawyer and prominent human rights defender, Rashid Rehman Khan, has once again shaken many, especially those who believe in humanity and human rights, not only in Pakistan, but throughout the world. It also reminds us how this draconian law continues to claim the lives of innocent people. Khan was representing a Bahauddin Zakariya Professor of English literature, Junaid Hafeez, who was arrested in March 2013 on blasphemy charges. He is a victim of internal politics. For a year his mother could not find a lawyer to represent him. At last, Rashid, who was not just a professional lawyer but also a human rights defender, agreed to represent him in court. The case was being heard in jail for Junaid’s security but Rashid was also a target of the extremists, having been threatened with his life in the courtroom in the presence of the judge. The judge kept silent instead of taking action against the culprits. Rashid had brought the issue of the death threats he had received to the attention of the police, judiciary and Bar Association of Pakistan and had asked for security for himself but no one took notice. On the evening of May 7 he was shot dead in his office.
 
I understand security concerns for victims and their representatives. I remember attending the court hearing of Wajihul Hassan, pejoratively called Murshid Masih, who was charged under the blasphemy law — it was a horrific experience for me. Ismail Qureshi, who had registered a case against Hassan, was the complainant and the court was full of his supporters while CLAAS, a Christian NGO that provides free legal aid to victims of the blasphemy law, only had a few. Police commandos were guarding the court, and it was a scary situation as anything could happen at any moment but Wajih, who is on death row, was taken back to prison safely. 

Rashid’s brutal killing served to expand terrorism in the name of Islam and to horrify those seeking justice for others charged under the blasphemy law. We all know the law is being misused and this has also been admitted by Pakistani politicians and other responsible people on several occasions. It has to be stopped but there is no sign of action from those in charge. The government is very well aware of the precarious situation; it is responsible to protect those who are falsely involved in blasphemy cases, and those who are defending them. Extremists continue to create havoc and kill anyone they believe has dared to oppose their interpretation of Islam. The state must know its responsibilities and should react appropriately. No one should be allowed to take the law into their own hands while we have the police and courts to punish someone if found guilty. 

Such a situation cannot be condoned and the government has to be held responsible for the deaths of all these innocent people, and letting the culprits believe they have impunity. I first came to know about this case not long ago when a professor from Quaid-e-Azam University contacted me with regards to his PhD research. For security reasons I will not mention his name as the thesis he is writing could get him into trouble too. As the tyranny of the blasphemy law continues, more people are raising their voices against it, and those who are raising their voice are no doubt brave and fully aware of the consequences, as even talking about changes to the blasphemy law is considered a crime — there is a history of several people being threatened and even killed in broad daylight.
On May 6, Pakistani Christians marked the 16th death anniversary of Bishop John Joseph who took his own life in protest of the misuse of the blasphemy law against his people. There was also the killing of Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti who was shot dead by extremists for freeing two Christians, Rehmat and Salamat Masih, who had been falsely charged under the blasphemy law and then had to flee the country. In 2011, the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, a very outspoken critic of the law, was shot dead by his own police guard for defending a poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi. His killer has since been celebrated as a hero by many who consider his actions to be in compliance with the Quran, with a retired judge, Khawaja Sharif representing him. Very recently, a mosque was named after him in Islamabad. Around two months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian minister for minority affairs, was assassinated after publically criticising the law and demanding changes. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing and the case is being heard in court, but there is not much hope as his family members have been threatened and warned of severe consequences if they continue pursuing the case. 

The rising tide of the abuse of the blasphemy law is gruesome. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF) has said that these laws are incompatible with human rights and the British Prime Minister (PM) has also raised concerns. There are about 33 people on death row charged under this law and I am not sure how safe they are as there is a history of several people being killed in police custody, including Samuel Masih, Nazir Masih, Tahir Iqbal and Fanish Masih. 

I also remember the case of Shahbaz from Bahawalpur who was wrestled from the police by an angry mob and burnt alive in a public square. Meanwhile, who can forget the eight Christians who were burnt alive during the attack on Gojra after blasphemy charges were brought against Talib Masih? However, all this bloodshed does not appear to have prompted the Pakistani government to take action. I met Tahir Ashrafi, the chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council and member of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) some time ago, and he insisted that the law is necessary and cannot be removed. At the same time, he conceded that it is being misused. The ongoing tyranny because of this law cannot be ignored and the government has to face this formidable situation. Religious tolerance and harmony is needed but just expressing a desire to do something is not enough and practical steps need to be taken. Pakistan is not the only country that is facing this situation; it should learn how other countries have overcome this problem and have established tolerant societies. Most importantly, the government will have to supplant the curriculum in schools and the culture of impunity has to be brought to an end with the perpetrators being brought to justice to end the tyranny of the blasphemy law. Nobody should be killed without being given a chance to prove their innocence. 

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