Amnesty International has strongly condemned the death sentence awarded to “Junaid Hafeez” on charges of blasphemy by a Pakistani court in Multan. Amnesty’s Rabia Mehmood has called the sentence “a gross miscarriage of justice” and added that the verdict… is extremely disappointing and surprising.
A Pakistani court, in Multan in South Punjab, early on Saturday sentenced a university lecturer to death for blasphemy under a law that critics say is often used to target minorities and liberal activists.
Who is Junaid Hafeez?
Junaid Hafeez, 33, was languishing in jail for past six years. He was arrested in March 2013 for allegedly posting derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammed on social media.
Junaid Hafeez had been a Full Bright Scholar in the United States; after completing his studies in literature he took up a job as a lecturer in Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan.
It was here during his teaching that he was accused of insulting the Prophet Mohamad (PBUH) both verbally and through a post on Facebook. However many familiar with the circumstances point out that his Facebook page may have been hacked.
They argue that “no one, in his right mind, will dare write anything offensive to the Prophet” since sensitivity to the issue is well known.
Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws date from 1860
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Muslim-majority Pakistan, where laws against it now carry a potential death sentence. Even unproven allegations have led to mob lynchings and vigilante murders.
Blasphemy laws were first introduced by the British in 1860, with the objective of deterring people to insult faith of the other community. In a multi-religious society, British thought that creation small fines and punishments will help keep harmony.
Pakistan inherited these laws as part of its legal machinery. However these laws remained as harmless parts of statute till 1980, when the Islamist minded military dictator, Gen. Zia, under pressure from Islamist parties or to get their support against liberal minded, PPP added more stringent punishments.
About 40 people convicted of blasphemy are on death row in Pakistan, according to a 2018 estimate by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom
However the worst happened in early 1990’s, in Nawaz Sharif’s government, when pandering to religious parties the government ended up adding death penalty to these offences. These laws have apparently been widely missed since then. In 2002, Musharraf government tried diluting these laws but surrendered under intense pressure from religious parties.
In many instances small personal disputes amongst people in rural areas and small towns have led to accusations of blasphemy. Most facing charges are Muslims, though Christians have also been targeted. Asia Bibi’s case was known all over the world. Her death penalty was finally overturned by the Supreme court of Pakistan in 2018. She is now living in Canada.
Reactions to the Death Sentence
Hafeez’s sentence was announced in central city of Multan, where he was a university lecturer at the time of his arrest, and his counsel Asad Jamal slammed the decision as “most unfortunate”.
“We will appeal against this verdict,” Jamal told AFP. There was tight security in and outside Multan prison where the trial was held. After the verdict, prosecution lawyers distributed sweets among their colleagues, who chanted “Allahu-akbar”(God is great) and “Death to blasphemers.”
Government lawyer Azim Chaudhry hailed the decision while fellow lawyer Airaz Ali said it was a “victory of truthfulness and righteousness.”
Rights group Amnesty International said the verdict was “a gross miscarriage of justice”.
“Junaid Hafeez’s death sentence is a gross miscarriage of justice and the verdict… is extremely disappointing and surprising,” Amnesty’s Rabia Mehmood said.
“The government must immediately release him and drop all charges against him,” she added. “The authorities must also guarantee his safety and that of his family and legal representatives.”
Murder of lawyer, Rashid Rehman, 2014
Hafeez’s first lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was killed in 2014 after receiving death threats during a hearing. At around 8.30pm on a Wednesday evening, Mr Rehman, a well-known advocate and a regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), was shot dead by two gunmen who entered his office in the city of Multan, apparently posing as prospective clients.
The attack came just weeks after he agreed to defend a college lecturer accused of blasphemy and had reportedly received death threats from other lawyers for doing so – which underlines the kind of societal malaise that exists in parts of Pakistan.
Reports that were published in 2014 said that the accusations against the lecturer, Junaid Hafeez, were levelled by hardline university students who had pushed for him to be charged. These students were apparently enraged on his liberal and modern ideas.
It was believed in his close contacts that his Facebook page was hacked and offensive statements were placed to plant evidence. False oral testimonies are common. Police, prosecution and judges are under pressure once such a charge arises.
About 40 people convicted of blasphemy are on death row in Pakistan, according to a 2018 estimate by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The acquittal last October of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had spent more than eight years on death row for blasphemy, provoked violent protests across Pakistan, leaving large swathes of the country paralyzed. Bibi now lives in Canada with her family.
While many cases involve Muslims accusing Muslims, rights activists have warned that religious minorities — particularly Christians — are often caught in the crossfire, with blasphemy charges used to settle personal scores.
GVS News Desk with input from Agencies.