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Pakistan: outrage over death sentence for ’blasphemous’ lecturer

Monday 23 December 2019, by siawi3


Pakistan: outrage over death sentence for ’blasphemous’ lecturer

Amnesty calls verdict in Junaid Hafeez’s trial a ‘vile and gross miscarriage of justice’

Shah Meer Baloch and Hannah Ellis-Petersen

Sat 21 Dec 2019 16.33 GMT
Last modified on Sat 21 Dec 2019 19.02 GMT

Police officers stand guard outside Multan jail where Junaid Hafeez has been held for six years. Photograph: Asim Tanveer/AP

A Pakistani university lecturer has been sentenced to death for blasphemy in a case that his family and human rights groups have decried as a gross miscarriage of justice.

Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at the Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in the central Pakistani city of Multan, had been accused of running a secret Facebook group and having insulted the prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an in 2013.

He was also accused of hosting Qaisra Shahraz, a famous British novelist of Pakistani origin, as a guest speaker and sharing blasphemous remarks against Islam during a lecture .

Hafeez was a US Fulbright scholar in 2009 and holds a masters from Jackson State University where he majored in US literature, photography and theatre. A US religious freedom commission placed his name on its list of global victims in December.

The blasphemy trial had been one of the most contentious in Pakistan, running for more than six years with various delays and seven different judges brought in. Hafeez’s former lawyer, Rashid Rehman, who had been threatened in court by religious leaders and other lawyers for taking on the case, was shot and killed in his office in 2014. Hafeez has since been kept in solitary confinement and the trial was held behind closed doors in a high-security prison in Multan.

“The prosecution, the witnesses and trial could not prove any of the allegations,” said Hafeez’s lawyer. “Hafeez was so happy when I met him on Wednesday night and everyone was sure that he would be acquitted.”

He alleged that during the trial that the prosecutor had not presented concrete evidence against Hafeez but had instead warned the judge that he was “against Islam” and that in Pakistan the case was “sensitive”. “It was the point I realised they were just using the religious card, which was immoral and unethical precedent in the court,” he said.

In a statement released by Hafeez’s family, they said the murder of his previous lawyer in 2014 and the failure to bring anyone to justice for the killing meant that “the prospect of Hafeez getting a fair trial came into question”.

They accused the courts of ignoring the lack of evidence and instead succumbing to outside threats in the verdict. “The failure to apprehend those who shot his lawyer Rehman dead signalled impunity for other would-be vigilantes,” said the family. “Could any judge in such circumstances take the risk of doing justice? Those who could were transferred from the district or brought under pressure by groups of lawyers operating as a mafia.”

Hafeez’s younger brother, Jawad, said the family “were not expecting this verdict as the case was an open case where nothing was proved against my brother. The judge has given this decision under fear while ignoring all arguments and facts”.

Activists, politicians and journalists are often fearful of talking about the inflammatory issue of blasphemy in Pakistan, where even unproven accusations of insulting Islam can spark lynchings and assassination attempts, but there has been widespread anger at the verdict.

IA Rehman, a prominent human rights activist and former general secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said: “The verdict is brutal and unjust. He has been in prison for six years for no reason. It is an open fact that trial courts in Pakistan rarely acquit accused in blasphemy cases.

“It is very deadly to comment on blasphemy related cases even in Pakistan. His lawyer was killed for following up the case. This has multiplied the fear in the country over such cases.”

Rabia Mehmood, a South Asia researcher at Amnesty International tweeted: “This is a vile and gross miscarriage of justice.”

A senior official who requested anonymity, said that before the verdict Hafeez’s lawyer was asked not to come to the prison because officials feared a mob attack if he was acquitted. They had also devised plans for Hafeez’s safe removal if any tense situation arose.

“Everyone was confident that he will be released today. This unfortunately did not happen,” he said.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws came under global scrutiny last year after the supreme court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy and held on death row for eight years. It was a landmark ruling that vindicated rights groups’ concerns about the conduct of blasphemy cases.

According to the Centre for Social Justice, a Pakistani advocacy group, at least 1,472 people were charged under blasphemy provisions between 1987 and 2016. There have been no executions, but at least 17 people convicted of blasphemy are on death row, and many others are serving life sentences for related offences.



Multan lecturer sentenced to death on blasphemy charge

Shakeel Ahmed

December 22, 2019

MULTAN: A district and sessions court on Saturday sentenced a former university lecturer to death on blasphemy charges.

Junaid Hafeez — a visiting lecturer at the Department of English Literature of the Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU), Multan — was booked on a blasphemy charge on March 13, 2013. He was arrested the same day.

The trial began in 2014 and the court reser­ved its verdict on Dec 18.

Additional District and Sessions Judge Kashif Qayyum announced the decision on Saturday in the presence of the accused at the New Central Jail.
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The court found Hafeez guilty of all charges and handed down 10-year imprisonment under Section 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs); life term under Section 295-B (defiling, etc, of Holy Quran) and death sentence under Section 295-C (use of derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of the Holy Prophet) of the Pakistan Penal Code.

It also imposed a collective fine of Rs600,000 and in case of default he would have to undergo an additional one-year imprisonment.

“All the sentences shall run consecutively and the accused would not be entitled to the benefit of Section 382-B CrPC because in case of blasphemer, this court has got no circumstance for taking lenient view and it is also not permitted in Islam,” ruled the court.

Section 382-B of the criminal procedure code says the length of any sentence of imprisonment imposed upon an accused person in respect of any offence shall be treated as reduced by any period during which he was detained in custody for such offence.

As many as 15 prosecution witnesses recorded their statements against Hafeez while 11 others were not called for being declared irrelevant.

The hearings of the case were held inside the prison due to security concerns.

In April 2014, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed serious concerns when death threats were extended to Special Task Force Coordinator of the HRCP Rashid Rehman Khan, who was representing Hafeez in court.

Mr Rehman and another person appeared before the judge on April 9 and during the arguments for acquittal, three persons addressed Mr Rehman in the judge’s presence and said: “You will not come to court next time because you will not exist anymore.”

He drew the court’s attention to the threat but the judge was reported to have remained silent.

Mr Rehman was gunned down in the HRCP office on May 7 by unidentified gunmen. Chehliyak SHO Abbas Gill was suspended from service over his failure to protect Mr Rehman despite the fact that he and the HRCP complained to police about the threats he had been receiving. On the report of the Chief Minister’s Inspection Team, then SSP Operations Shaukat Abbas too was suspended.

In July 2015, another lawyer for Hafeez submitted an application to police that he had been receiving threats with a warning to withdraw himself from the case.

Also, the BZU administration succumbed to the pressure of a religious group the next year and removed Dr Sheerin Zubair, the chairperson of the English department, and initiated an inquiry against her.

Meanwhile, the HRCP said it was dismayed by the verdict handed down to academic Junaid Hafeez.

“The HRCP believes that the blasphemy laws are heavily misused. This is compounded by a trial process ridden by delays and pressures at the level of the lower judiciary. The offence itself is already associated with vigilantism and entrenched impunity — underscored by the 2014 murder of Hafeez’s lawyer, Rashid Rehman. The resulting pressure on lower courts becomes apparent when most such verdicts are overturned by the High Court or Supreme Court,” it says.

The HRCP reposed its faith in the higher judiciary and expressed hope that “the verdict will be overturned in appeal”.