SPOTLIGHT | Murder In Courtroom: No End To ‘Blasphemy’-Related Violence In Pakistan
The cold-blooded murder of a blasphemy accused man inside a courtroom in Peshawar is yet another reminder of the impunity with which individuals on trial for alleged blasphemy in Pakistan are subjected to violence and mob justice. There are several disturbing factors about the case that merit consideration. That the murder took place inside the courtroom in front of the judge exposes the state of lawlessness in the country. It is also a reminder of the often ignored matter of absence of fairness and transparency in blasphemy cases.
Moreover, police records have revealed that the murderer, identified as Faisal Khan, was not a trained killer but a 17-year-old graduate of a local madrassa. This suggests that he was radicalised by extremists at such a young age. The state’s failure to save the youth from the flames of radicalisation is another cause for concern.
Lionisation of the killer
When the murderer. Faial Khan, appeared before the court following the incident, he was welcomed with hugs and kisses. On July 31, several supporters of a religious group participated in a rally in Peshawar in support of the killer and sought his release. Others who publicly glorified and lent support to the murderer include MPA Haleem Adil Sheikh belonging to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) who put up the criminal’s display picture on his official Facebook page after photoshopping the image to add rose petals. A senior leader of religio-political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) Mufti Kifayatullah also celebrated the murder and said that it was the first time justice was delivered inside the court.
Some personnel of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Elite Police Force also extended support to the killer and posed for photos with him inside the prison van.
Lawyer Basil Nabi Malik says legal action can be initiated against the police officers in question for their act of glorifying a murder suspect. “Amongst other things, the police personnel can be charged for dereliction of duties by virtue of them being allegedly partisan, as well as being involved in an act, including its dissemination, which creates unrest and disorder in the public,” he told Naya Daur. He, however, added that the question appears not be whether action can be taken against these officials, but rather, whether there is a desire by the higher ups for any to be taken.
Lack of fair trial in blasphemy cases
Blasphemy accused individuals’ right to fair trial as enshrined in the Constitution is almost always violated. Lawyers shy away from taking up the cases of citizens accused of blasphemy due to threats from religious fanatics. In 2015, Rashid Rehman, a lawyer defending a blasphemy accused professor Junaid Hafeez, was gunned down in broad daylight. Rehman who was also HRCP’S coordinator for the Punjab office, had been facing threats for pleading the case of Junaid Hafeez.
On May 8, 2014 – a day after his murder, an unsigned pamphlet was distributed in Multan saying Rehman met his ‘rightful end’ for trying to save someone who ‘disrespected’ Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). “We warn all lawyers to be afraid of god and think twice before engaging in such acts,” the pamphlet had said.
His killers are yet to be identified and brought to justice.
Later, the slain lawyer’s client Junaid Hafeez was sentenced to death in November 2019 after a 6-year-long trial. Calls from human rights activists and international scholars seeking his release fell on deaf ears.
Saiful Malook, the lawyer who successfully defended blasphemy accused Christian woman Aasia Bibi after a wrongful eight-year-trial, had to flee Pakistan after threats to his life. Under such circumstances, those wrongfully accused of blasphemy are left defenseless.
Many observers believe that the state’s lack of response in handling blasphemy-related violence allows this wave of fear to prevail.
“All blasphemy trials in Pakistan so far have been a sham”, says human rights activist Marvi Sirmed. She is of the opinion that a fair trial can never take place if legal counsels can’t defend the accused without the fear of being attacked and journalists are unable to report blasphemy cases with independence. “Judges can’t decide the case without worrying for gory consequences that they might have to face afterwards. In such conditions, a trial is not a trial, it is a farce. A tragic drama. Nothing more,” Sirmed told Naya Daur.
Basil Nabi Malik says that it is possible that a judge is not under any direct threat or intimidation in rendering a decision in a blasphemy case. “However, the sensitive nature of the matter, along with the pressure that is exerted on a societal, religious and moral plane by those who seek to use it as a tool for retribution, limits the ability of the judge to do justice in such matters.”
Meanwhile, it has also been observed that blasphemy cases often face unnecessary delays which undermines the fairness of the process. Malik says that in light of the sensitivity involved, judges may find it easier to delay adjudicating on the matter, or rendering a verdict in line with the pressure exerted by society at large.
“As judges in trial courts tend to be more exposed and less secure or protected than their peers in the High Court or Supreme Court, such pressure can go a long way in effectively denying the due process of the law to various accused,” he added.
No condemnation of the murder from govt
No government official or member of any mainstream political party has so far condemned the Peshawar courtroom incident. The slain blasphemy accused Tahir Naseem happened to be a US citizen which is why his murder prompted reaction from the US government. It was only after the US State Department issued a statement reacting to the killing that Pakistan’s Foreign Office promised an inquiry. The FO claimed to have formed a ‘special team’ to probe the incident. But observers have little hope that the inquiry will see the light of the day.
Mainstream media did not give much coverage to the incident either.
Marvi Sirmed says even the most progressive and closet secular politicians wouldn’t dare to say anything [against murders of blasphemy accused] because they fear for their own lives. “Their fears are very real too, considering the broad daylight assassinations of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer Shaheed and minister Shahbaz Bhatti Shaheed,” she added.
Sirmed further said that politicians do not just represent people having a single point of view, but they have to take into account the overall hyperbolic increase in violent extremism among the people. “If they take a clear position based on the opinion held by minority viewpoint (liberal, secular), they are very likely to lose the support of their local electorate,” she notes.
She however believes that the ‘true leader’ would lead the people out of abyss by changing their mindset. “That’s not happening here because none of the politicians is ready to become a leader, a visionary one at that,” she laments.
Further, Marvi points out that in every political party in Pakistan, howsoever progressive its general politics may be, there are strong elements with similar belief system as that of Peshawar’s Faisal Khan.
Who is radicalising Pakistan’s youth?
Asked whether state is to blame for the extremist tendencies among the youth, Sirmed says: “Not only that the state’s problematic narrative about religion is responsible for the increasing radicalisation, but its propensity to exploit those public sentiments, and use the extremist religious organisations as strategic assets and to engineer political conditions of its choosing, is to be blamed.”
She added that a sit-in led by extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) chief Khadim Rizvi was supported and patronised by some powerful institutions. “When Justice Qazi Faiz Isa and Justice Shaukat Siddiqui alluded to such a complicity, they were targeted and discredited by the same powerful institutions,” she notes.
Further, she said that no laws apply to these extremist organisations because “some very powerful institutions are adamant to give them free playing field”.
“I would blame the foolish policy of ‘political mainstreaming’ of terrorist and extremist organisations too. That has proven counter productive, and in fact, very very injurious for Pakistan,” says Sirmed.