HRCP Round Table Demands Protection For Judges Hearing Blasphemy Cases
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) held a round table consultation at its secretariat to mark the tenth annual Day of the Endangered Lawyer, the focus of which is Pakistan this year. The consultation was attended by members of bar councils and associations, and civil society organisations.
Lawyer Asad Jamal, who moderated the session, explained why it was critical to discuss the threats faced by lawyers who defend human rights. HRCP Honorary Spokesperson I. A. Rehman underscored the need to document all such instances of threats to lawyers. Participants shared a range of experiences, from lawyers who said that they had been threatened openly by their own colleagues for representing clients from the Ahmadiyya community, to those who had faced intimidation from state agency officials in cases related to torture or death in custody.
Politically sensitive cases, such as those pertaining to enforced disappearances, also put lawyers at risk. Lawyer and digital rights activist Nighat Dad pointed out that ensuring lawyers’ security extended to their digital security: if this became compromised, it would immediately put clients at risk.
An important consensus was that women lawyers and lawyers from religious minorities were subjected to greater harassment, not only from male colleagues, but also from judges. Advocates Jalila Haider and Alia Malik recounted the number of instances in which they had been harassed in court or been threatened with physical violence.
Vice-chair of the Pakistan Bar Council Abid Saqi pointed to the structural discrimination existing in the Constitution and laws. He recommended that a permanent body be constituted to develop strategies for countering threats to lawyers handling sensitive cases, such as those related to blasphemy and forced conversion. He also agreed, among other things, to a proposal for establishing committees to counter the harassment of women in the legal profession.
HRCP Council member and senior lawyer Hina Jilani said that lawyers must engage with the state, and especially the judiciary, to sensitise them to such threats and the need to perform their due role.
The participants agreed to hold a conference in near future in which the issues raised in today’s consultation will be raised in order to make the legal profession safer and fairer. The convener of the group Asad Jamal while concluding the roundtable announced that another meeting will soon be held to take concrete steps to ensure implementation of recommendations and the holding of a conference on the protection and independence of lawyers and judges.
Some of the main recommendations include
Re harassment/sexual harassment in the legal profession
- a) The participants agreed that harassment of women lawyers and judges is rampant and it must be countered with all the available means including the existing legal framework;
- b) The participants agreed that anti-harassment committees should be established;
- c) Lawyers’ sensitisation to the gender related issues should be incorporated in professional development courses to be conducted by bar councils and associations
Re cases of political nature
- a) The state institutions need to be engaged in order to sensitise that lawyers should be allowed to act independently and without fear of reprisals
- b) The government and various other pillars of the state and institutions are urged to understand that all lawyers are meant to protect rights of the individual, therefore, they perform their duties only to ensure enforcement of constitutional rights;
Role of the bar councils and associations
The bar councils must
- i) play their role in creating awareness and sensitivity among the different state institutions regarding the independence of lawyers and judges in accordance with the constitutional mandate as well as in accordance with the international principles of independence of lawyers and judges;
- ii) play its due role in ensuring that lawyers do get the opportunity to understand the international standards of independence of lawyers, judges and prosecutors through training programmes and legal education.
About blasphemy cases
- a) Trial in blasphemy cases should not be held in the same district where the case originates;
- b) The state must ensure that blasphemy accused get immediate access to capable lawyer whose protection is also ensured;
- c) Trial court judges who have to conduct blasphemy trial must be guaranteed protection so that they can deliver justice by ensuring fair trial and due process
- d) Vigilante groups must be dealt with swiftly in accordance with the law with zero tolerance for violence
- c) The higher judiciary being in charge of the district judiciary must understand its obligations and provide the necessary support to the district judiciary in order to allow it fairly discharge their duties
- d) Ethical prosecution needs to be promoted, in general
- e) The police must also be sensitized and urged to perform their duties honestly and diligently