Tyranny of Pakistan’s blasphemy law and culture of impunity. By Nasir Saeed

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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 I hear the resonance of condemnation reverberating throughout the world.
Khan was representing Junaid Hafeez, professor of English literature at the Bahauddin Zakariya University, who was arrested in March 2013 on blasphemy charges.
For a year his mother could not find a lawyer to represent him and provide him with justice by proving him innocent. At last Rashid, who was not just a professional lawyer but a human rights defender, agreed to represent him in court. The case was being heard in the jail for Junaid’s security but Rashid was also a target for extremists, having been threatened for his life in the court room in the presence of the judge.
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, and on the evening of May 7 he was shot dead in his office.
But I understand security concerns for victims and their representatives. I remember attending the court hearing of Wajih ul Hassan, pejoratively called Murshid Masih, who was charged under the blasphemy law, and it was a horrific experience for me. Ismail Qureshi, who had registered a case against him was the complainant, the court was full of his supporters while CLAAS - a Christian NGO that provides free legal aid to victims of blasphemy laws – who was representing Wajih, only had a few. Police force 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 still there is no sign of action from those in charge. The government is very well aware of the precarious situation, and it has a responsibility to protect those who are falsely accused in blasphemy cases, and those who are protecting 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 to their own hands, while we have police and courts to punish someone if found guilty. Such a situation cannot be appreciated and the government has to be held responsible for the death of all these innocent people, and letting the culprits believe they have impunity.
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 were 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 poor Christian woman Aasia Bibi. His killer has since been celebrated as a hero by many who consider his actions in compliance with the Quran, with a retired judge, Khawaja Sharif representing him. .
Around two months later Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian minister for minority affairs, was assassinated after publically criticising the law and demanding changes. The Pakistani Taliban has 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 USCIRF has said that these laws are incompatible with human rights, and the British Prime Minister has also raised his concern. There are about 33 people on death row charged under this law and I am not sure how safe they are?
I also remember the case of Shahbaz from Bahawalpur who was wrestled from the police by an angry mob and burnt alive in the 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 of this bloodshed does not appear to have prompted the Pakistani government to take action.
Religious tolerance and harmony is needed, but just expressing a desire to do something is not enough rather practical steps are needed to be taken. Pakistan is not the only country that is facing this situation. It should learn from how other countries have overcome this problem and established a tolerant society.
Firstly, and most importantly, the government will have to supplant the curriculum in schools which is currently being criticised. And also, the culture of impunity has to be brought to an end, and the perpetrators have to be brought to justice to end the tyranny of the blasphemy law. Nobody should be killed without being given a chance to prove their innocence.
Courtesy: The News International, London

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