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

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