The merciless assassin: The blasphemy law (Part Two)

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Aden - Yasmin Abdel Azim - File picture: Students protest atrocities against the Christian community in Hyderabad, Pakistan. Pakistan’s blasphemy law terrifies minorities, quashes dissent and emboldens radicals. Image Credit: AP

Highlights

  • While there has been no execution in a case of blasphemy in Pakistan, many lives have been destroyed
  • The blasphemy law of Pakistan is a constitutional endowment that is used as a licence for persecution of individuals and communities for personal and political agendas

He was sentenced to death in 2002. He had been in jail for a year before the court announced its verdict. He was not hanged. He waited every day of his marked life for the death he did not deserve, for the death that he dreaded more than ordinary mortals fear death. Every day was a bonus. Every night was haunted. Every month was anticipation. Every year was more disappointment. So much time passed in its blurry, glacial indifference he lost track. His life passed him by with a pity-filled pat on his head as he waited for justice. Nothing happened. He remained in jail. Not one, not two, not ten, he was in jail for eighteen years.

His name was Wajih-ul-Hassan. He was a Muslim. He was a resident of Kot Abdul Malik of district Sheikupura in Punjab. He was accused of blasphemy on March 31, 1999 under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Court (PPC). The allegation was the writing of five ‘blasphemous letters’ to a lawyer, Ismail Qureshi. In 2002, Hassan was awarded ten-year imprisonment on Section 295-A of the PPC and death sentence under Section 295-C. One punishment was not enough in a case that had weak evidence and weaker witnesses. It was an additional district and sessions court in Lahore that gave the verdict. The Lahore High Court upheld the verdict.

Hassan spent the next eighteen years locked up in a dark cell. Most blasphemy accused locked up in solitary confinement wait for humanity to acknowledge their existence. Taking away their dignity, their right for justice, their youth, their freedom is not enough. Once accused of blasphemy, they are stripped of their right to be human. They are not hanged but it is ensured that each breath that they take is jagged...alone, terrified, forgotten.

On September 25, 2019, the Supreme Court of Pakistan passed another historic verdict. After Asia Bibi’s momentous judgment of release in October 2018, once again the highest court of Pakistan showed that justice might be delayed but it is always the right of those who are falsely accused or have a case against them that does not have legal substance. For the Supreme Court, a case is decided on its legal merit, not on the wishes of a bloodthirsty mob that has a singular agenda: creation of mayhem wielding the flag of misuse of religion.

A bench comprising of three judges and headed by justice Sajjad Ali Shah issued the verdict of the exoneration of Wajih-ul-Hassan. Dawn reported: “The prosecution had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the letters, which became the basis of blasphemy allegations against Mr Hassan, were actually written by him. The Supreme Court has acquitted Mr Hassan on the grounds that the ‘extra-judicial confession’ and corroboratory evidence—the handwriting expert’s report—were always considered weak evidence under the law, and since there was no direct witness, therefore, the apex court had no option but to order the release of the accused after exonerating him from all charges.”

Justice delayed for eighteen years is still justice.

Among those who kept their faith, and despite monumental social and legal odds did not abandon their pursuit of justice was Hassan’s lawyer, Nadeem Anthony. Talking to AFP, the very courageous lawyer said: “Everyone was crying with happiness... [after what had been a] long journey.” Speaking up for, fighting for justice, and issuing a fair verdict in a case of blasphemy is not merely courage. It is heroism in Pakistan.

The Supreme Court in its detailed judgement on Asia Bibi’s case in October 2018 stated: “Presumption of innocence remains throughout the case until such time the prosecution on the evidence satisfies the court beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the offence alleged against him [her].”

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Asia Bibi

The Supreme Court in its detailed judgement on Wajih-ul-Hassan’s case in September 2019 stated: “There cannot be a fair trial, which is itself the primary purpose of criminal jurisprudence, if the judges have not been able to clearly elucidate the rudimentary concept of the standard of proof that prosecution must meet in order to obtain a conviction.”

Dispensation of justice must not be allowed to be swayed by populism, by chants of the self-appointed vigilantes of religion for blood, and for appeasement of those who forgetting the traits of compassion and forgiveness of Allah become the worldly saviours of the divine religion that needs no saviour other than Allah.

The blasphemy law of Pakistan is a constitutional endowment that is used as a licence for persecution of individuals and communities for personal and political agendas, for deepening of faith-based schisms, for isolation of the ‘other’, for settling of scores and lust of vengeance, and for strengthening of the self-entitlement of the majority. While there has been no execution in a case of blasphemy in Pakistan, many lives have been destroyed. Each life matters. Is the life of the individual accused of blasphemy worthless?

Not much will change until those who destroy lives with a false or an un-provable accusation of blasphemy are held accountable. Perjury is a crime. So is a false accusation of blasphemy. Until the law does not punish each perpetrator of a false accusation of blasphemy, there will be more Wajih-ul-Hassans, Asia Bibis and Junaid Hafeezs in dark, forgotten cells of the overcrowded jails of Pakistan.

According to a 2018 report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, there are forty people convicted of blasphemy currently on death row in Pakistan.

The Amnesty International stated in 2019: “Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are overly broad, vague and coercive. They have been used to target religious minorities, pursue personal vendettas and carry out vigilante violence.”

Brad Adams, Asia Director, Human Rights Watch, after Supreme Court’s Wajih-ul-Hassan’s release verdict said: “The overturned conviction of a man imprisoned for 18 years highlights just one of many miscarriages of justice stemming from Pakistan’s vaguely worded blasphemy law. Typically, it’s members of religious minorities or other vulnerable communities who are wrongly accused and left unable to defend themselves.”

Adams added: “The Supreme Court took an important step by ending Hassan’s horrific ordeal, though many more charged with blasphemy are languishing in Pakistani prisons. Repealing the blasphemy law is necessary to ensure that all Pakistanis can live free from fear of unjust punishment and discrimination.”

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) tweeted after Hassan’s exoneration: “USCIRF welcomes the #Pakistan Supreme Court’s acquittal of Wajeeh-ul-Hassan after almost 20 years on death row on false blasphemy charges.” The USCIRF also added that the Pakistan’s government is urged to “free others imprisoned under unjust blasphemy laws and work to repeal them.”

Michelle Chaudhary, Executive Director, Cecil and Iris Chaudhary Foundation, asked after Hassan’s exoneration: “Has justice really been served? A person spends [almost] 19 long years of his life on death row for a crime that he did not commit, a crime that could not be proven in a court of law. Who is going to hold all those accountable for falsely accusing Wajih-ul-Hassan of blasphemy? It is about time that the accusers of false blasphemy accusations are held accountable; if there was no evidence against him why was he sentenced to death by the Sessions Court? Why did the Lahore High Court uphold that death sentence?”

There are many questions. There is no hope of a single satisfactory answer.

Initiation of a debate about the effectiveness of the blasphemy law in an almost ninety-seven percent Pakistan is tantamount to blasphemy. Enunciation of the rights of those falsely accused of blasphemy is sacrilege. Asking for revision of the clauses of the British-made and Zia-ul-Haq amended blasphemy law is disrespect of religion. Seeking the repeal of the man-made blasphemy law is construed as desecration of the divine.

The release of Asia Bibi in 2018 and Wajih-ul-Hassan in 2019 is the renewed hope of fairness for all those jailed and sentenced on an allegation of blasphemy. The exoneration of two people on death row – one Christian and one Muslim – is the rekindled, flickering but distinct, hope of justice for Junaid Hafeez.

Junaid Hafeez is another Muslim Pakistani watching his life pass him by with a melancholic headshake. He has been waiting for justice for six years in his solitary confinement.

(This is the second of a multiple-part series on misuse of blasphemy law in Pakistan)

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