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Descent into darkness

May 09, 2014

IT was almost a killing foretold. And the path to its inevitability is strewn with all the signs of this country’s descent into a dystopian nightmare. Rashid Rehman Khan, senior lawyer and member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was shot dead in Multan on Wednesday night in an attack that also injured two of his colleagues, one of them critically. Mr Rehman was the defence lawyer for Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, and he had received death threats from two lawyers representing the complainant, as well as two other individuals, for having taken up the case. The threats by the lawyers were reportedly made during the course of the first hearing of the case in March which was held inside the prison for security reasons.

The issue of blasphemy, already one upon whose edifice is played out the ruin of many a life in Pakistan, has assumed an even more deadly trajectory since Salmaan Taseer was shot dead on Jan 4, 2011 by his security guard for advocating changes in the blasphemy law and showing support to Aasiya Bibi, a Christian woman accused under the same law. The shameful spectacle of the killer, Mumtaz Qadri, being garlanded when he was brought to court for his trial, the fact that the judge who sentenced him to death had to move abroad for his safety, and the then government’s timorous response to the murder, have engendered an atmosphere where vigilante justice in blasphemy cases is openly celebrated by sections of the public. Meanwhile, those accused of the crime find it increasingly difficult to find a lawyer willing, and brave enough, to defend them in court. Trials of blasphemy accused in open courtrooms used to be a harrowing affair, with hostile crowds intimidating judges and defence lawyers during the proceedings, but as Mr Rehman’s murder shows, even moving such trials out of the public eye provides no safety when some lawyers themselves harbour contempt for due process when it comes to ‘crimes against religion’.

Although Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has ordered the immediate arrest of those involved in the attack, it is scarcely enough to stem the tide. The state must not only review the blasphemy law but, through its words and actions, reclaim the ground ceded to those who believe they have a divine duty to play judge, jury and executioner to individuals accused of blasphemy, those providing the latter their right to defence, or anyone advocating changes in the law. One fears though, that it is too much to expect in a country where the state has taken no action to curb a dangerous narrative and where few words of condemnation are reserved for the increasingly violent acts of extremism. It is such silence and inaction that provide the fertile soil for intolerance to thrive.