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In the name of the law

Published Mar 14, 2004 12:00am

In the name of the law, Dr Mohammad Younus Sheikh was accused in October 2000 of the crime of blasphemy, under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. In the name of the law, he was tried in September 2001, found guilty, sentenced to death. In the name of the law, he lived on death row in Adiala Jail until, in the name of the law, his sentence was overturned in November 2003 and he was released, in great secrecy.

His accusers immediately filed an appeal against his acquittal and it being impossible for him to live a normal life in this country as a free man and stay alive, he went into hiding for a few weeks so as to be able to meet his family, and on the morning of January 19, he boarded a flight to Dubai on his way to Geneva. He flew away from his homeland to live in comparative safety, and freedom.

Such is the state of Pakistan, unwilling or unable to provide protection, and such is the country's society, and such is law and order, that a man once accused of blasphemy can only flee his homeland if he is to find freedom and safety. Younus Sheikh had no choice but to leave, and he did so reluctantly.

The sorry tale of Mohammed Younus Sheikh is related on the website of the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union which led the campaign to free him (www.iheu.org/younus_shaikh_free.htm).

Sheikh was born in Chishtian in 1952. After high school, he studied medicine in Multan where he qualified as a doctor of medicine, and did post-graduate studies in Dublin and London. He worked as a trainee surgeon in the United Kingdom from 1981 until 1988, when he returned to Pakistan to teach at a medical college in Islamabad.

As with all human rights activists in Pakistan, he attracted the attention of the fundamentalists. He took part in the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace and Democracy, and was a member of the South Asian Fraternity, South Asian Union and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In 1990, inspired by the ideas of the European Enlightenment and Renaissance, he founded an organization known as 'The Enlightenment'.

At a meeting of the South Asian Union on October 1, 2000, Younus Sheikh suggested that, in the interest of the people of Kashmir, the Line of Control between the Indian and Pakistani forces should become the international border. This clearly offended one of our many dunderheads who informed Dr Shaikh: "I will crush the heads of those that talk like this." On October 3, without any explanation being offered, he was suspended by his college.

Later that same evening, one of his students (with the backing of several of his fellows), an employee of the Pakistani foreign office, made a complaint to a religious vigilance group known as Majlis-i-Tahaffuz Khatm-i-Nabuwat, the committee for the protection of the finality of the prophethood. The allegation was that on October 2 in a lecture between 12 noon and 12-40 the doctor had made blasphemous remarks about the Prophet of Islam. The vigilantes filed a complaint with the police. Younus Sheikh was arrested on the evening of October 4 and charged with blasphemy.

Those accused of blasphemy under Article 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code are unable to obtain bail and are held in custody awaiting trial. If pronounced guilty, they face a mandatory death sentence. The trial of Dr Sheikh, held throughout the summer of 2001, took place in a hostile courtroom packed with religious activists who warned the defence lawyers to "think of your families and children". The final two sessions were held in-camera with armed members of the Taliban waiting outside. It was finally established during the trial that the alleged events had never taken place. Nevertheless, on August 18, 2001, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Such injustices are the norm in cases of alleged blasphemy.

For the next two years, Sheikh was held in solitary confinement in a death cell in the central gaol in Rawalpindi. He appealed to the Lahore High Court but the two appeal court judges failed to agree. On July 15, 2002 the case was referred to a senior judge for a final decision.

The case lingered for over a year until the reluctant referee judge took up the case on October 9, 2003. The judge finally decided that the original judgment was unsound but, playing safe, as the lives and families of the judges who show leniency in blasphemy cases are also at risk, rather than acquitting Sheikh he remanded the case back to a lower court for retrial.

The retrial was held over three sessions in November 2003 at the Session Court, Islamabad. In the light of the harassment and intimidation suffered by his lawyers at the earlier hearings, and much against the advice of the judge, of his colleagues, his family and the members of the diplomatic community present in the court, Dr Sheikh decided this time round to conduct his own defence. The prosecuting counsel tried to exploit the religious feelings of the court but Sheikh confined his defence to legal arguments and was finally acquitted on November 21.

The brave judge had accepted his legal arguments, and had found the charges to be baseless: his accusers, two mullahs and several students, had lied. Many victims of the Pakistani blasphemy laws have failed to survive prison, and a number of those tried and acquitted have been murdered following their release. A few recent examples: Mohammed Yousaf was shot dead inside the central gaol in Lahore in July 2002 while awaiting his appeal; in February 2003, Mushtaq Zafar, accused of blasphemy, was shot dead on his way back home from the high court; in June 2003, 35-year-old Naseem Bibi, who had been the victim of a gangrape by police, was charged with blasphemy, and was murdered in prison before her trial could begin.

The legal profession is also not immune from attack. Defence lawyers are regularly intimidated by religious bigots and fundamentalists, and one high court judge was murdered after acquitting an accused in a blasphemy case.

As long as the blasphemy laws are on the statute book they will continue to be misused. It is estimated that over 100 innocent victims of Pakistan's mediaeval black laws are currently in prison either awaiting trial or already under sentence of death, facing an uncertain future. These victims may not be as fortunate as Dr Sheikh who had a circle of committed friends inside and outside the country. These laws, as is well known by the leaders and the led, are widely abused to make false accusations against both Muslims and members of religious minorities, as well as innocent business rivals and political opponents.

The blasphemy laws have served manifold purposes for the ever-changing leadership of Pakistan. The present blasphemy statutes were crafted in 1986 during the regime of General Ziaul Haq, an avowed fundamentalist, although earlier laws date to the 19th century and the time of the British colonial system. They defined blasphemy as anything which "by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly" insults Islam and its Prophet. In 1992, the law was amended by then prime minister Nawaz Sharif to make blasphemy punishable only by death. Many saw that as a move to placate Pakistan's growing nexus of Islamic extremists and religious terrorists.

The military government of Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf in May 2001 attempted to modify some of the anti-blasphemy laws, but backed down following threats from religious leaders. Now President General Pervez Musharraf, with all powers firmly in his hands, under great international pressure to modify the mindset of his country, to drag it out of the dark ages and bring it into the world of the 21st century, preaches moderation, enlightenment, toleration and the like. If he, through fear of a backlash, insists on retaining the blasphemy laws, the Hudood Ordinances, the Qisas and Diyat laws, and all other similar laws that are merely used to bludgeon innocent citizens of his country, there can be no moderation or enlightenment or tolerance.

The parliament he has put in place is riddled with the immoderate, the unenlightened and the deeply intolerant, so little can be expected of it. It is all up to the president. If he so wishes, if he still has the will, and if he rids himself of his friendly 'advisers' who so ill-advise him, he can clean up the statute book and free Pakistan of just some of the worldwide odium that haunts it.

Bad news: According to a news item of March 10 in this newspaper ('Qazi sets terms for cooperation'), Qazi Hussain Ahmed has announced that Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali has assured the MMA that "his government will not repeal the Hudood Ordinances or effect any changes in the law." What price moderation, enlightenment, tolerance?