Blasphemy in Pakistan is too scary for even politicians to address
Blasphemy is being used as a weapon by extremists, not only against the so-called blasphemer but against the judiciary too27 February 2020 - 12:46 Agency Staff Pakistan's Asia Bibi (left) is awarded the honorary citizenship of Paris by mayor Anne Hidalgo, on February 25 2020. She had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Picture: AFP/THOMAS SAMSON Lahore — Inside a small Lahore courtroom, the packed crowd attending the hearing of a blasphemy case against a Christian pastor is most notable for the absence of hardline clerics shouting insults and demanding the death penalty. For years, they would attend such hearings in force, seeking to pressure magistrates to convict and impose the severest sentences on anyone facing what is an incendiary charge in Pakistan. But one year after the conclusion of the country’s most high-profile blasphemy case and a government crackdown against extremists who exploited it for political ends, the clerics are largely gone. “Before Asia Bibi, dozens of maulanas [religious scholars] were coming to my hearings,” said the pastor Adnan Prince, who stands accused of desecrating the Koran. “After that, they didn’t come any more.” The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 and acquitted by the supreme court in 2018, shone a global spotlight on the use — and abuse — of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. Her release was pounced on by the hardline Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP, or Movement at the Service of the Prophet), which was formed five years ago and gained influence by weaponising the blasphemy issue. Due to the risk of being labeled blasphemers themselves if they acquit, they tend to ‘always convict’, said the former judge The party spearheaded violent street protests against Bibi’s acquittal and called for the supreme court justices to be killed, but crossed the reddest of red lines by urging the overthrow of the country’s powerful army chief. A government crackdown ensued that netted thousands of TLP loyalists — a move that Prince’s lawyer, Asad Jamal, credits for the absence of the maulanas . “The voice of the [religious] far right has been muffled,” Jamal said, adding that the crackdown had sent a clear signal to the extremists who abandoned their courtroom lobbying. But if that lowered the intimidating decibel levels in court, “the feeling of fear is still there” among the magistrates, Jamal stressed. ‘Always convict’ According to one former judge who spoke to AFP, magistrates in Pakistan’s lower courts remain very vulnerable to intimidation in blasphemy cases, given that they often live among the communities they serve. Due to the risk of being labeled blasphemers themselves if they acquit, they tend to “always convict”, said the former judge who spoke on condition of anonymity. A recent example saw a university professor, Junaid Hafeez, sentenced to death in December for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Given that the first lawyer who agreed to represent Hafeez was murdered, his family argued there was never any prospect of receiving a fair hearing. “Could any judge in such circumstances take the risk of doing justice?” they said in a statement. Condemning the sentence, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said blasphemy laws continue to be “heavily misused” and the judicial process is “ridden by delays and pressures at the level of the lower judiciary”. The contention that many guilty rulings by magistrates in blasphemy cases are flawed has been borne out by the significant number that are overturned on appeal by higher courts. But Pakistan’s clogged justice system means the appeal process can take years. Last September, the supreme court acquitted Wajih-ul-Hassan after he had spent 18 years on death row for allegedly insulting the Prophet. And even after release from prison, freedom is a relative term when it comes to allegations of blasphemy and the vigilante violence that often surrounds them. “In many people’s minds, even though he’s been acquitted, he’s still guilty,” said his lawyer, Nadeem Anthony. “So he has to live in hiding.” Read more: Business Day
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