A reign of fear

April 17, 2014


AN environment of deepening fear across the country is not only making it hard for the people, especially the more vulnerable among them, to defend their rights, it is also preventing them from leading a normal life.

One of the greatest challenges human rights defenders today face in Pakistan is the near impossibility of guaranteeing those charged with blasphemy, or any other offence relating to religion, their right to adequate defence.

The difficulties in finding lawyers to appear in such cases have been reported for years. Resolutions passed by lawyers’ bodies against defending any blasphemy accused are no secret. The courts have often been besieged by mobs demanding death for the accused without trial. The latest instance of an attempt to deny defence to a blasphemy accused has been reported from Multan, which has quite a record in the annals of blasphemy trials.

A Supreme Court advocate, appearing for a teacher charged with blasphemy was arguing for quashing of the case when he was told by a lawyer and his companion to keep quiet otherwise he would be killed before the next hearing.

It should be noted that the case was being heard inside a central prison ostensibly to protect the judge, the lawyers and the witnesses from mob pressure and violence. But apparently trial in prison does not prevent troublemakers from interfering with the course of justice.

Several other factors have affected the fate of people in conflict with the law. The police, the prosecutors, the media and professional complainants all seem to have joined hands to create a climate of fear. Out of the many sub-sections in the Pakistan Penal Code chapter on offences relating to religion only one, 295-C, applies to blasphemy. Yet all accused booked under any of the other sub-sections are also branded blasphemers. This mischievous inflation of blasphemy cases suggests an enhanced threat to the majority community’s faith and the police and subordinate judiciary start panicking.

There are reports that extra efforts are made to secure the conviction of a person charged with an offence relating to belief. Bail applications are opposed with extraordinary vigour and there are reports that the lawyers who are somehow persuaded to accept briefs take their responsibility rather casually. In a recent case, the prosecution is alleged to have drafted a confession of blasphemy in terms that no person in his right senses could accept, without the victim becoming aware of the content.

While more Muslims than others are facing charges relating to religion, including blasphemy, as a community they are not haunted by the fear of suddenly falling into the pit as the religious minorities are. The Hindus and the Christians who have emigrated over recent months — and their number in either category runs into the tens of thousands — cite fear of being framed for blasphemy as one of the reasons for seeking asylum abroad.

The view that a person charged with an offence relating to religion, especially blasphemy, cannot have a fair trial must not be allowed to gain ground. Otherwise Islamabad will be guilty of confirming the finding of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom that “the government of Pakistan continues to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief”.

The narrative about the way in which feelings of insecurity are causing despair among members of the Muslim majority community may be somewhat different but it also contains harrowing details. No end to targeted killing in Karachi is in sight. One day a doctor is killed and another day a lawyer is felled. More than a score of people perished in the Islamabad market blast. Sudden death has a different face in Quetta and Peshawar. And the notion that life is secure in Lahore is an illusion. There is hardly a place in the whole country where fear of death is not wrecking the people’s peace of mind.

The entire population is on tenterhooks because there is no guarantee that talks with the militant challengers will produce the results the people want. They are afraid the extremists may refuse to accept peace, and they are afraid that the government may buy respite for itself at the cost of what little freedom vulnerable groups at present enjoy. Since official moves are neither transparent nor intelligible to ordinary minds, the element of anxiety grows day by day.

As if the fear of the suicide bomber or sniper on the prowl were not enough, two developments have accentuated public despair. First, there are reports that provincial and local authorities plan to tell more and more communities to make their own security arrangements. Secondly, the government’s insistence on adopting laws like the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance sounds like a resolve to throw the people before the wolves. A regime that wishes to make laws that prima facie destroy the assumptions of justice cannot replace with hope, the fear gnawing at each citizen’s heart.

Anybody who thinks that the pervasive climate of fear does not disrupt the people’s normal pursuits or their mental capacity will only confirm having been afflicted. As old proverbs go, the fear of extinction is worse than death itself, and it is the foremost duty of those in charge of the people’s destiny to help them banish fear from their minds. This will need some doing but the first essential step will be a demonstration of the will to ensure governance in the interest of the people.