Incarcerated For Six Years: Fulbright Scholar Junaid Hafeez Should Be Immediately Released

Incarcerated For Six Years: Fulbright Scholar Junaid Hafeez Should Be Immediately Released
Ali Gibran and Zaineb Majoka, Fulbright fellows, write about the ordeal of another Fulbright Scholar and lecturer Junaid Hafeez, who was falsely accused of blasphemy and has been languishing in solitary confinement for more than six years. Like many others in Pakistan he is also a victim of a broken justice system. He should be released immediately. 

Many recipients of the Fulbright scholarship award see it as a stepping stone for further remarkable achievements: 60 have gone on to win the Nobel Prize, 86 have received the Pulitzer Prize, 75 have become MacArthur Foundation fellows, and 37 heads of state. But there is one - Junaid Hafeez - who has been languishing in solitary confinement for the last 6 years, awaiting trial to come to an end.

Back in 2013, Hafeez was 27 years old and had what seemed like a promising life ahead of him. The dream future he had envisioned for himself was as a lecturer of English Literature at Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in Multan, Pakistan.

Hafeez’s path to BZU is in itself an interesting one: a bit of a rebel, he shunned immense social pressure and took the road less traveled by dropping out of medical school to pursue Literature and Drama. It was partly because of his time at Jackson State University in Mississippi USA, where he studied social sciences for a year on Fulbright scholarship. Medical school would have guaranteed upward social mobility for Hafeez, whose own father had struggled to put food on the table every day as the operator of a small tour business for Muslims looking to perform holy pilgrimage to Mecca. To most residents in Hafeez’s hometown of Rajanpur – a small city known for poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and polio resurgence – his move from medical school to the arts must have appeared bizarre. But this was a young man who was determined to take control of his destiny.

March 2013 was an important month in the life and career of Hafeez. He had applied for a permanent position as a faculty member at BZU, and well aware of his intellectual prowess, he was quite confident that he would get the job.

But in a span of a few days, his world was turned upside down. Seemingly out of nowhere, some students at the university started a protest where it was implied that Hafeez had committed blasphemy: a very serious allegation in Pakistan. This was a bizarre incident, as Hafeez maintains that he never did anything disrespectful because he comes from a religious Muslim family, where even entertaining such a thought was condemned.

Over the next few days, the student protests morphed into full blown charges of blasphemy against Hafeez. In most cases, the accused is considered guilty until proven innocent and any assertion by a Muslim witness is deemed enough to charge someone. Moreover, investigations are often flawed or influenced heavily by public opinion. By the time Hafeez realized the gravity of the situation, the stage had already been set and there was little he could do.

His Facebook account had been hacked a few months before the protests and Junaid had no foresight that this incident would later haunt him. Hafeez asserts that his account was hacked with the motive to post offensive material from his account. To date, no one from the investigation team has contacted Facebook to confirm Hafeez’s side of the story. According to Hafeez, the investigating officers maliciously suppressed facts which could prove his innocence. The cell number which was in his use has knowingly been suppressed and not shown prosecution evidence submitted before the court and instead a false  cell number has been shown to have been recovered from Hafeez. Hafeez says he received death threats on his cell number in the days leading to his arrest.

And so on March 13, 2013, the day that Hafeez could have gotten a permanent position as leading to lecturer, he was arrested by the police from a bus terminal in Lahore instead. He was booked by the police under Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws, which allow police to arrest the accused without warrant. His predicament was dire, but Junaid was determined to fight in the court of law to prove his innocence. And this is where his ordeal really starts.

Initially, no lawyer was willing to take up his case. Those who eventually took the case left within a few months due to mounting pressure from certain factions of the society. Then, by a stroke of luck, Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights lawyer took up his case. Things were looking up even though the courts maintained caution and were slow to hold hearings about the sensitive matter. Meanwhile, Rehman started receiving death threats in and out of court room located inside the prison, but he persisted to represent Junaid. On May 7, 2014, less than six months after Rehman took up the case, two unidentified men stormed into his office and shot him dead. Rehman provided a brief glimmer of bravery and hope to Hafeez, whose life had now become shrouded in complete darkness.

Blasphemy laws remain controversial in Pakistan and are often used to target minorities or to curtail freedom of expression and opinion. Extra-judicial killings of the accused are also common as  Amnesty International reported that Pakistan’s judicial system fails to protect the accused from mob violence or vigilante justice. Hafeez’s case is not only about the Blasphemy Laws but also about the failing justice system in Pakistan.

Hafeez has been in jail since his arrest and has never been granted a bail. He spends his days and nights alone in an unsanitary, rat infested 6’ by 8’ cell which is monitored by CCTV 24/7. He gets to see his family very briefly, once a week. He gets poor food and inadequate medical attention. Earlier this year, he was examined by a psychiatrist who prescribed him anti-depressants.

Not only is his mental and physical health deteriorating, but his family continues to live under constant fear of being targeted by extremists.

Hafeez is not asking for amending these laws. His demands are much simpler and basic: he wants his right to a free and fair trial and a chance to prove his innocence as enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan. He wants the justice system to follow the due process: investigate the validity of witness reports as well as evidence that has been presented in the court; discourage prosecution from using delaying tactics; provide security to the sitting judge and his counsel so that they can pursue the case without fear of death or any other repercussion; and presume his innocence until proven guilty as guaranteed by the law. He has never been given an opportunity to vindicate himself. If he is found guilty, the court can punish him as per the law but at least he should be afforded an opportunity to defend himself.

Unfortunately, he is not the only victim of a broken justice system. There are thousands like him in Pakistan, who have lost their trust in the rule of law and the institutions that were supposed to protect them. Pakistani state cannot give Hafeez back the six years of his life. But the least it can do is to start implementing its own laws and regulations.

Hafeez represents the prototype of a thinking human being. His idealism to make this world a better place through his trade, his courage and his resilience and tenacity in the face of insurmountable odds. All this represents the essence of what being a human means. He has demonstrated that through his actions, but are we ready to do our bit?