Rashid Rehman: Fearless Lawyer Killed For Defending The Oppressed
Earlier in April this year, Pakistan mourned the death of its father of human rights, as Human Rights Watch called him — the legendary I. A Rehman. A teacher and mentor to his younger friends and comrades, he was a fighter for all victims of human rights abuses — even his ideological rivals. Perhaps not many young people know another Rehman, his nephew, who stood for the downtrodden and gave his life defending human rights 7 years ago in May. He was rights advocate Rashid Rehman Khan. The cause — of defending human rights — ran in the family of Rehmans, so to speak. Both Rehmans, I A Rehman in Lahore and Rashid Rehman in Multan, were the strength of the oppressed — peasants, workers and religious minorities. Lahore’s Rehman, a veteran journalist, gave voice to the oppressed and Multan’s Rehman, a lawyer, fought their legal battles.
It was Rashid Rehman Khan who welcomed the human rights movement led by late Asma Jhangir and I A Rehman in South Punjab. He started working with the HRCP, more than three decades back, first as a correspondent and finally as its regional coordinator in Multan. He helped establish the institution in Multan which refuged workers, rape victims and acid survivors, freed victims of forced labor and reported human rights violations in the neglected Seraiki Wasaib.
Rashid Rehman’s enthusiasm, fearlessness, and dedication to the cause of upholding human rights were the reasons for the success of the movement in the south region, people at HRCP and beyond admit this.
One hears from his acquaintances how he approached victims who needed legal help and did not charge them fees. I. A Rehman reminded us once that Rashid never said no to any call made on him from the districts of his jurisdiction that were; Khanewal, Pakpattan, Mailsi, Vehrai, Lodhran, Muzaffargarh, Laiyya, Rajanpur, D.G. Khan, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar and Rahim Yar Khan. He used to travel in these areas in warm summer and cold winters. These areas are not picnic places where someone would choose to go. But the cause which Rashid loved, lead him to such places.
There are many instances where he went with police and released people held in chains by feudal lords, brick kiln owners, mullahs and credit lenders. One such instance is of 60 madrassah children who were imprisoned, with their feet cuffed with chains, by a local Maulvi of the religious seminary, Qasim Ul Uloom of Multan. The only reason pupils were restrained was that they were not being able to learn verses of the Quran by heart. Rashid Rehman, being sensitive about the issue, filed a petition in the court and the next day the children were freed at last.
He was the first to take up the two very famous human rights abuse cases, the rape victim Mukhtaran Mai’s case and the blasphemy accused Junaid Hafiz’s case. The latter went on to take his life.
Rashid Rehman knew defending a blasphemy accused was not a safe path to walk on. He had told BBC in April 2014 that taking up a blasphemy case was like “walking into the jaws of death”. He was right.
Junaid Hafeez, an unlucky yet brilliant former English lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in Multan, was accused of sharing blasphemous content on Facebook targeting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in 2013. The accusation was levelled by the Islami Jamiat-e-Talba, the student front of the far-right Jamat-e-Islami party. In the wake of right-wing insistence, police lodged a case against Junaid under the blasphemy law. He was arrested from Lahore before he could flee to the United States where he previously studied as a Fulbright Scholar. After his first lawyer gave up, given the threats he received, no one was ready to take on his defense until Rashid Rehman stepped in.
When asked why Rashid was pleading Junaid’s case, he said, “If I don’t plead his case, who else will?”. That was Rashid Rehman. “The tasks people hesitated to do were a child’s play for him,” says Akmal, his office assistant at the HRCP Multan special task force office. Akmal also said that despite serious threats he never saw fear in Khan sahib’s (as he called him) eyes. He was confident till his last breath and proved right, his own saying; “Fear is a habit and I’m not afraid”. He was valorous among cowards.
Walking into the jaws of death, Rehman appeared in Multan Central Jail special court for Junaid’s hearing on 9th April 2014 only to receive death threat from rightwing lawyers and their friends. They warned him to quit the case or “you will not appear for the next hearing because you will not exist anymore,” they said while the judge listened.
Rashid Rehman was not the kind of a person who steps back due to fear. He did not quit the case. But he notified the president of the District Bar Association about the intimidation and threat made by the group of bigots. Rashid Rehman told the president if any harm happens to him, the responsible persons would be two lawyers Zulfiqar Ali Sindhu, Sajjad Ahmad Chawan and Ayub Mughal and one unknown accompanying them. 7 years after his murder, they all, once on 4th schedule, roam freely in the city. One of them, Ayub Mughal, even contested the 2018 elections for a national assembly seat on the ticket of Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan TLP, now a banned political outfit.
On May 7, 2014 Rashid Rehman was working in the HRCP special task force office when two hired guns rushed into his office and opened fire. Five bullets hit his body and he succumbed to the injuries. All mourned his passing. A mother lost his son, sisters lost their brother, nephews lost their uncle and above all the workers, farmers and oppressed lost their savior. He fought to ensure justice for all, but he has not been served justice. The murder case of Rashid Rehman was mismanaged and corrupted by the influenced bigots. His file at Multan Cantt police station is closed because police claim they encountered two of contract killers and one fled the country. The grim reality faced by his last client Junaid Hafiz is not different, who was awarded a death sentence by the local court in December 2019. Fanatic groups in the legal fraternity and beyond have a lot to do in pushing court’s decisions regressively. The two cases remind us how flawed the justice system of the country is. Not only is justice delayed but the local courts have minimum potential to deal with pressure by powerful groups in such high-profile cases, especially when religion is involved.