How badly will the murder of Rashid Rehman — the latest in a series of attacks on human rights activists and especially those involved in defending blasphemy accused — have a chilling effect on activism as a whole?
The murder of Rashid is a message for lawyers to be selective about the cases they take up. Defending anyone accused of blasphemy will not be allowed by Islamist militants, who kill with impunity. His murder followed the same pattern that groups who kill with impunity follow. First you kill and then you threaten anyone else who may follow the same path. Pamphlets were distributed in the Multan Bar Association, warning that anyone who takes up the defence in cases of blasphemy will meet the same fate. It is highly demoralising for human rights activists who are always at risk and the government takes threats against them lightly.
There is the oft-repeated mantra of whenever such an attack takes place, that this will not dampen the struggle for human rights and justice. Do you think this is still true?
Space for human rights work is shrinking by the day. This incident will discourage young activists and blasphemy accused will not get any legal counsel at all. In any case, there is always reluctance to join the human rights movement as those believing in liberal values have always been at the receiving end in this country despite the fact that the position they took vindicated them. For example, when liberal Pakistanis expressed the desire to end hostilities with India and Afghanistan they were dubbed as traitors. Now all major political parties are taking the same position. Other examples are the Hadood laws, honour killings, separate electorates, minority rights, Balochistan. It was the liberal activists who warned that the killing of Akbar Bugti would add fuel to the insurgency and that blasphemy laws will be massively misused, to name just two such examples.
The track record of the courts in providing a fair trial to those accused of blasphemy has been, in a word, abysmal. Do you ever see this changing?
One should not expect a fair trial. After all, the bail for someone accused of blasphemy, who is proven to be mentally challenged and of an advanced age could only be secured at the supreme court level! Our courts in effect allow mobs of ultra right-wing lawyers and mullahs to fill the court room, and these mobs then proceed to terrify lawyers, witnesses and even judges. This should be stopped. Also the government has so far not been able to arrest the killers of Rashid or the attackers of Hamid Mir. It has failed to protect the lives of its citizens. In a country where members of banned organisations and known terrorists are encouraged to hold rallies in favour of the country's armed forces how can anyone be safe? It is a brazen defiance of people's security and of state security.
Is there a pattern to watch out for when it comes to attacks, verbal and physical, against such activists including journalists and media persons? How often does a verbal threat in fact lead to physical violence?
After Rashid's murder I urge all human rights activists and journalists to take these threats very seriously. They start though letters and now text messages and on social media using the most dirty language and dangerously false allegations possible. They also watch you so you should keep your movements unpredictable. If the threat is clear and made by identifiable people then you may even need to relocate. You should also always keep the police informed — not that they can do anything, of course. You should write to the authorities and frankly do all that you can, but with the knowledge that the state is helpless. A former PM and Governor's children have been kidnapped by militants and no one can do anything for those unfortunate young people. What was their fault?
This is a clichéd question, of course, but where can one pin the failure of the state to provide even a semblance of security to people who are quite literally being threatened with death? In this I mean both those accused of blasphemy and those defending them.
Those who have a nexus with state actors have assured impunity. Others who aren’t that lucky realise that the system simply does not work, so they have effective impunity because of a dysfunctional criminal legal system. And then of course there are reported cases where the state has also got away quite often with threats and murder. It has been recorded in the Supreme Court in the missing persons’ case and the commission on Salim Shahzad alludes to it as does the commission on missing people.
So what measures can actually be taken in such a situation?
On the most basic level, we need to make an autonomous public prosecutor system and an autonomous forensic investigation department. We also need judges who are courageous and appointed on merit. But none of these basic ingredients are there at the moment. Most importantly, we have to decide as a nation whether we want to surrender our sovereignty to Talibanisation or challenge them collectively? Watch the circus going on nowadays; no government can work if it is under constant threat from the establishment who have puppets they can roll out in the streets and spread disinformation. A country that cannot fight polio and deal with a law that is so obviously being misused to settle scores can only be pitied. When Pakistan’s history will be objectively written it will be the most documented case of a country where treachery ruled and won. It’s no longer a few misled individuals, but the country itself that is on a suicide mission. Only God can save us from ourselves.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014