In blasphemy cases, the ‘lucky’ ones are the ones still breathing
Imagine being Shafqat Emmanuel: you are accused of sending a blasphemous sms to a local prayer leader, of all people. The police show up and arrest not just you but also your wife, after which a local court disregards the flimsiness of the evidence and hurriedly sentences both of you to death, much to the approval of the baying mob — some in lawyers’ livery — that gathers at every hearing. You file an appeal of course, but due to the vagaries of our criminal justice system you end up spending seven or so years on death row.
Imagine that in 2021 your appeal is finally heard and the court decides that the evidence for the original conviction was insufficient to say the least, and that the prosecution was unable to even establish that the mobile phone from which the alleged text was sent was yours, let alone presenting any proof that would justify a death sentence.
He is now free, but he’s also a paraplegic thanks to an old spinal injury that has worsened during his incarceration. His lost years will never be returned to him and his future is uncertain at best, as he is no longer employable and also runs the risk of being shot dead by someone upset that he wasn’t duly executed by the state.
Imagine that, despite all of this, he’s one of the lucky ones.
It’s not about law either, because if it was then the statutes against false testimony would also be applied on those inventing evidence and committing perjury with the aim of destroying another’s life.
He’s lucky because he could still be in that solitary cell, like Junaid Hafeez has been for the last eight years. In those eight years, a total of eight judges have come and gone and yet the first hearing of his appeal has yet to take place. He’s lucky because, at the very least, he’s still alive unlike Rashid Rehman who was shot dead in his office for the sin of choosing to defend Junaid in court. He’s alive unlike Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti. who had acquitted two persons accused of blasphemy and was murdered in his office after receiving death threats for years. Unlike Salmaan Taseer and so many others sacrificed at this altar, he’s still breathing.
He could have been Wajih-ul-hasan, who spent 18 years on death row on falsified charges of blasphemy. Here it wasn’t an sms but a series of letters that he was accused of sending and as per standard practice no concrete proof was submitted that he had in fact written those letters. Nevertheless, based on this and a ‘confession’ he allegedly made to a third party, the lower court saw it fit to sentence him to death, a verdict that was only overturned when the case reached the supreme court.
It’s not clear whether Mr. Hasan even got an apology for the near two decades he spent in a solitary cell. As for Junaid Hafeez, when a prosecution witness cited certain books with allegedly blasphemous content that Junaid was said to have ‘supported’, he was asked to pinpoint the offending passage and was unable to because the books were in English, a language the witness admitted he could not read.
How does it come to this? How do courts pronounce death sentences on such flimsy evidence? Advocate Saif-ul-Mulook, who fought the cases of both Asia bibi and Shafqat Emmanuel says that this is largely the result of the immense pressure mounted by local clerics and their allies in the legal community, and that this pressure starts from the filing of charges and affects not just the police investigation but the court proceedings as well. Mobs gather around the police station, demanding to be baptized by the blood of the accused. The same mobs also throng the court proceedings, where lawyers for the complainant cite scripture instead of statutes.
Naturally, when quoting scripture, they omit parts that emphasize the evil of making false accusations.
In fact, dig a little deeper into these cases and you’ll find, as the Supreme Court did in the 2002 Ayub Masih case, that personal enmities and personal gain are often the motivating factors. In Ayub’s case it was a land dispute; in Asia bibi’s case it was a personal grudge, as was the case when a security guard murdered a bank manager in Khushab and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to label the manager a blasphemer whom he had ‘punished’.
If this was about respecting religion, then Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chisti would be in jail right now. This is the man who accused Rimsha Masih, a mentally challenged Christian girl of burning the pages of the Holy Qur’an. Later, it turned out that Chishti had himself committed this sacrilege and framed Rimsha, but Chishti is today a free man while Rimsha had to flee the country.
It’s not about law either, because if it was then the statutes against false testimony would also be applied on those inventing evidence and committing perjury with the aim of destroying another’s life. Indeed, Justice Khosa in his judgment noted that those witnesses who had lied under oath should have been jailed for life, had the case not been so ‘sensitive’ in nature.
And that really sums it up: the law is used not to ensure religious harmony but as an instrument of personal and political vengeance, where the mere threat of blasphemy charges is enough to instil fear and impose silence. And in such an atmosphere, even the most reasoned and nuanced debate on the misuse of this law is rendered impossible. After all, no one wants to be Shafqat Emannuel.
– Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News.