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by Irfan Aslam
Only five bullets were needed to silence Multan’s bravest son, Rashid Rehman. Those who mourned his death were many: the weak and the destitute, single women without family support, landless peasants, bonded labourers working in brick kilns and farms, and of course, Junaid Hafeez and his family.
Languishing in a Sahiwal prison for more than a year, Junaid Hafeez had arrived at the Bahauddin Zakariya University with big dreams and a set of moral and ethical values he wanted to impart to his students..
As Hafeez looks out of the jail cell today, one thing is clear: a lecturer teaching students to push the envelope and think critically can no longer find legal representation. No longer does Rehman live, no longer can the students be taught that the ethics of the land have been skewed to restrict thought and inquiry. There were only five bullets, but there were countless victims.
Rashid Rehman: the Rashid Rehman, an advocate and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) Multan taskforce coordinator, was not just another lawyer and rights activist. Rehman was a beacon of hope for the many who could not afford or obtain counsel for one reason or the other.
“Across Multan Katchery, it was known that Rashid Saheb would take up a case even if a litigant did not have a penny with him or her. Even other lawyers used to send such cases to Rashid Saheb,” said a close aide to Rashid Rehman, who worked along him for many years but wanted to remain anonymous. He said Rashid used to remain in office until late night, something his close friends would warn him against, especially after he received threats. But he was a workaholic and truly dedicated to his cause and so he ignored any such advice.
“Rashid Saheb was on the forefront of the struggle to ensure rights for peasants and bonded labourers. Last year, his book was published on the rights of land tenants, titled Zamino Ki Bandar Baant (Unjust Distribution of Land), and it describes the situation of tenants and the injustice meted out to them,” he says, adding that Rashid Saheb remained active with Anjuman Mazareen in Multan, Sahiwal, Okara and the whole of south Punjab throughout his career. It was this spirit that made him take up the case of Junaid Hafeez who had been accused of blasphemy.
“His opposing lawyers said to him right in front of the judge during the proceedings of the case that he won’t live to appear at the next hearing. Rashid Saheb complained to the judge, who did not take notice of the threat. His killing is a big loss to the poor and the downtrodden of the region,” Rehman’s close aide said.
Ghulam Fatima, secretary general of Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF-Pakistan), says Rehman remained involved in working for bonded labour for decades. “Whenever we had any issue in southern Punjab, we always sought help from Rashid Saheb, and he was always available without taking any fee,” says Fatima.
The BLLF chief recalled that one time, she managed to get some bonded labourers released through a bailiff with the help of Rashid Rehman, but then started receiving threats from kiln owners. “When I called him to tell him about the threats I was receiving, he said ‘it’s okay, even I am also receiving threats from the same people’,” she narrates.
Fatima says that when the Bonded Labour Liberation Act 1992 was being formulated, Rehman gave his recommendations for it which were incorporated in the Act. “Recently, before the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the federal government again sought our recommendations, and Rehman, on our behalf, pointed out flaws and gave his legal input in the matter,” she says.
Rights activist and lawyer, Asad Jamal, says that nobody was willing to take the case of Junaid Hafeez, especially after the case of Shafqat and Shagufta Masih. After another lawyer, Mudassar, who Junaid’s father had hired to defend his son, gave in to the threats issued by hardliners, someone else was needed to pursue the case; someone with commitment.
“That’s when the HRCP and Rashid Rehman came forward to pursue the case, which was not moving forward for more than a year. However, he started receiving threats after that,” Jamal says, alleging that besides receiving threats from other lawyers, Tahaffuz-i-Namoos-i-Risalat also held a protest in front of his office.
Deploring the state of justice in the country, Jamal says: “Rashid Rehman objected when, while indicting Hafeez, the judge referred to the books of a famous Urdu fiction writer that were recovered from his room. However, his objection was ignored.”
Jamal says that the FIR mentions that Junaid Hafeez was operating two groups on Facebook: “So-Called Liberals of Pakistan” and “Mullah Munafiq”. Even though it was so easy to trace out where the groups were being operated from, the police did not probe the ownership issue. The ridiculous part is that both groups remained functional and continued with updates even when Junaid Hafeez was in jail.
“After receiving threats, he looked concerned and while discussing the issue with me he said it was getting too serious. But he was never reluctant as he had a strong character,” Jamal says.
Reminiscing about Rashid Rehman’s past, he says, “He has been working for the downtrodden for more than last 20 years and faced threats many a time. He worked in the 1990s for brick kiln workers and received threats from the kiln owners. Besides, he pursued rape and honour killing cases but threats never frightened him.”
Asad Jamal says that though Rashid Rehman had demanded the government provide him security, which it failed to do — as it does in most cases — but threats and persecution of the innocent cannot be countered by providing personal security to individuals.
“It is something larger, harming the whole social fabric and the root of the issue is this law which is being misused on a large scale. The state will have to deal with it,” argues Jamal.
Talking about Rashid Rehman, HRCP Secretary General I.A. Rehman says the killing of Rashid is a big loss for the commission as he used to take care of the whole region of southern Punjab up to Rahim Yar Khan. “After he received threats, we wrote to the government and the police and, despite acknowledging the gravity of the situation, they did not do anything to provide him security,” he says.
I. A. Rehman says the people cannot do anything to stop such happenings. “The state and the government will have to step in to stop the menace or the whole country will be in a big trouble, in fact it already is in a big trouble.”
Junaid Hafeez: scholar, teacher, prisoner
Junaid Hafeez is not just another ordinary accused — as in most of blasphemy cases. He is an idealist in a conservative orthodox society which has no space for logic. Hailing from Rajanpur, he won the gold medal in pre-medical in Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education DG Khan, standing first in the board. In 2003, he joined King Edward Medical College to become a doctor, a dream of many of science students in the country. “He was not interested in pursuing his medical education. Instead, he was more interested in literature and social sciences,” says one of his close friends who requested not to be named.
In 2006, Hafeez left King Edward, went back to his region and joined Bahauddin Zakariya University Multan to undertake a BA Hons in English Literature.
“The boy is a scholar. When I went to meet him, he had books with him, of philosophy and literature. One of the books I saw was of Tariq Rehman,” Zia says, adding that Hafeez is a teacher and was teaching other inmates at the jail.
“It was when I watched Dead Poets Society in my days at medical university that I decided to give up medicine as a profession and opted for a degree in English language and literature. My interest in the subject has been nurtured by the texts I studied like Love in the Time of Cholera, and the movies I watched such as Ijazat and Dil Se,” writes Junaid in his personal statement that he sent to the Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi, US.
Hafeez was one of only five students selected for a highly-competitive exchange programme for America, where he studied theatre, photography and American literature.
For his MPhil thesis, Hafeez chose to decode the layers of Pakistani masculinity through an ethnographic study of masculinity in popular cinema in Multan. He had also written four research papers on cinema, feminism and Seraiki literature and was working on research on feminism, masculinity and film. He had also translated short stories of South Punjab writers into English and wanted to publish an anthology of his translated works. He was a poet as well.
Hafeez started teaching at the BZU as a visiting lecturer in 2011 while also teaching at the College of Design, Multan.
“Many of his colleagues were not happy with him and he was also a victim of peer politics in his department. However, the head of his department supported him in a hostile atmosphere, so his opponents could not do anything to him,” says his friend, hinting at the animosity which resulted in a right-wing religious group at the university working against him.
“He became a victim of politics at the department. New vacancies were going to open at the BZU English Department, and a group of right-wing students with help from those who did not want to see Junaid in the department, implicated him in the case,” says Afiya Zia, a human rights activist, who met Junaid at Sahiwal jail after his arrest.
“Most of blasphemy accused are implicated in fake cases. Most of the times, there are other ulterior motives behind such cases. The Facebook pages that Junaid was accused of operating continued after he was arrested and jailed,” she says.
“The boy is a scholar. When I went to meet him, he had books with him, of philosophy and literature. One of the books I saw was of Tariq Rehman,” Zia says, adding that Hafeez is a teacher and was teaching other inmates at the jail. She says that though he is mentally a strong young man, but he too must be very concerned after Rashid Rehman’s murder.
“The root of the issue is the law which is misused and abused to implicate people. This practice should be stopped, otherwise, society will have to pay a heavy price for it though we have already paid a heavy price so far,” she says.
Hafeez’s friend says that he was quite religious as well. “Once he told me how to be a practising Muslim. ‘Start saying prayers during Ramazan, then it will be your habit’ he told me,” says his friend.
“Junaid has his own philosophical views and he is more inclined towards Sufism but it does not mean he is non-religious. He is just more straightforward and daring,” his friend says.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014
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
Why telling the truth in the land of the pure is life-threatening
Last year, the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights informed parliament about 8,648 rights violations that had occurred across Pakistan. These included violence against women, sectarian violence and target killings, sexual harassment and other violations that were reported to the police. This figure also included 141 cases of missing persons, 47 of which were from Balochistan, the Ministry stated. However, rights violations related to the blasphemy laws were not stated as such, but what was noted in the list (and is open to interpretation) was that there had been ‘20 minority-related issues.’ There is a lack of state acknowledgement that unpopular victims of violations need legal counsel, advice and in many cases, protection. But as militant ideas and intolerance become increasingly mainstream, it is human rights defenders themselves that are the target of extremist groups operating with impunity.
When I provided a safe-house for the gang-rape survivor and her father during the court hearing, the police filed a case against me for kidnapping the woman and her father
Questioning the state’s capacity and will to establish the rule of law, Sam Zarifi, the Asia Pacific Regional Director at the International Commission of Jurists, says the country is conceding space to extremists. “A government that cannot protect its people is systematically failing in its responsibility and cannot call itself a sovereign state,” he says. Zarifi believes that when it comes to representation, the legal community must unite and sign up to represent unpopular defendants needing legal assistance. But in an atmosphere in which extremists threaten and murder with impunity, this is easier suggested than implemented.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a credible chronicler of rights violations known to lobby and intervene through the courts, focuses on assistance for victims of rights violations; highlights the issue of enforced disappearances, violence against women and minorities and offers legal defense for those accused of blasphemy. It has paid a high price for its stance. In March 2011, Naeem Sabir Jamaldini, HRCP’s Khuzdar district coordinator was shot for his work reporting on rights violations and documenting Baloch missing persons; HRCP’s Pasni coordinator, Siddique Eido, was abducted in 2010 in Gwadar and his body found in April 2011. Zarteef Khan Afridi, a teacher and an HRCP activist in Khyber Agency since 1989, had been receiving threats from the Taliban. He refused to leave the district when he was killed in Jamrud in December 2011, says HRCP chairperson, Zohra Yusuf. He would advocate the rights of women and girls and had trained school teachers which won him the hatred of extremist and obscurantist forces who opposed his critique of seminaries. “The space for rational debate is shrinking,” she says.
Yet another legal activist who had worked with HRCP for over two decades lost his life earlier this month. Rashid Rehman, known for his unwavering commitment providing assistance to defendants without legal representation, had refused to succumb to the threats. Rehman, gunned down in his Multan office, was threatened in an open court for defending a university professor — previously unable to find a legal representation for a year — in a blasphemy case. He had also defended Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US in a fabricated blasphemy case in Multan. A 2012 study by the Islamabad-based think tank, the Center for Research and Security Studies shows an increase in blasphemy accusations with 80 complaints in 2011, up from a single case in 2001. “Extremist groups are successfully targeting ethnic and religious minorities and anybody who dares to speak out in their defence, right up to a government minister is targeted, which means strategically isolating these communities so that they don’t have any allies,” Zarifi points out.
“Many believe that some accused don’t have a right to representation by lawyers,” say Yusuf, citing the murder of Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti who acquitted two Christian boys in a 1995 blasphemy case. Bhatti, who had received numerous death threats, was murdered in 1997.
Human rights groups have long campaigned against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which carry a death penalty and are frequently used to settle personal scores and persecute religious minorities. Evidence is rarely presented in court and judges are reluctant to hear cases. There is no penalty for false accusations. Indeed, the scope of the law seems to be widening, as seen in the recent example where the Punjab police registered a case of blasphemy against 68 lawyers who publicly protested after a police officer detained one of their colleagues.
As a lawyer who has defended an accused in a blasphemy case explains, the immediate reaction was shock when other associates heard he was involved in such proceedings. “It was as if I deserved to be attacked [if that happened] for providing legal assistance,” he recalls. Speaking to Dawn on condition of anonymity, he says he was warned and roughed up by a group of lawyers within the premises of the SC for his involvement. It is common to hear of lower courts convicting the accused in blasphemy cases, sometimes on little credible evidence, due to the fear of mob violence if there is no conviction.
“Blasphemy cases are in a league of their own because of the kind of emotions they evoke, often followed by violent vigilante actions. While legally representing vulnerable groups, there is pressure and intimidation, but the insecurity felt as an advocate while defending a blasphemy case is unlike anything else,” says senior advocate, Salman Raja.
Other human rights work also evokes reaction from politically-backed perpetrators. When Raja advocated for justice for a 13-year-old victim in Rawalpindi, he was warned to withdraw from the case in March 2012. This led the Chief Justice to order a security contingent for Raja and rights activist Tahira Abdullah for a year. Raja explains that he intervened with Abdullah’s help ensuring that the SC took suo moto notice of the case and an FIR was lodged against the accused. “I rushed to the court and filed a petition when I read the story in Dawn about the prosecutor general acquitting the accused persons. The rape survivor and her family had been threatened by the powerful perpetrators to stay silent and accept compensation. They were very poor and afraid of being seen talking to a lawyer. The girl told us she had been gang-raped. The IG told me in court that I was wasting time. When I provided a safe-house for the gang-rape survivor and her father during the court hearing, the police filed a case against me for kidnapping the woman and her father.” Raja says the police investigation was so shoddy that, without evidence, there was no case. “In 99 per cent of rape cases the accused walk away free. There is no forensic evidence that links the accused to the crime. Rape has become a matter to be negotiated between the victim and the accused with the police merely brokering the deal.”
Human rights work is unlike humanitarian work when results appear quickly. It takes decades of courage and resilience with activists and groups needed to keep tapping away for the desired change. “The HRCP have a track record of standing with the oppressed. They have had to play the role of an opposition political party in Pakistan through consistent advocacy although they are old-fashioned and work with limited resources,” says journalist Mohammad Hanif, who documented the stories of missing persons in The Baloch who is not missing anymore. Rights defenders like the activists who campaign for missing persons, politicians who advocate for the rights of the marginalised minority and the advocates who provide unpopular defendants with legal assistance —whether it is the former President Musharraf or blasphemy accused or rape victims — are increasingly at risk. The result is that, while standing up for human rights remains a noble cause, it is also increasingly dangerous.
Equally importantly, it is itself a right under international protection placed in December 1998 under the special protection of the international community, explains Angelika Pathak, a senior researcher at Amnesty International.
“Pakistan, as a member of the international community, committed itself to protecting and safeguarding the rights of human rights defenders when the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted. It entered international legal obligations to ensure the rights to life, the security of the person, to freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest and detention and from enforced disappearance when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture in 2010; such commitment also includes the obligation to exercise due diligence in protecting anyone, including human rights defenders, against abuses by private persons,” she adds.
In practice, few of these commitments are honoured. When looking for ways to ensure victims accused in blasphemy cases are given access to justice, Salman Raja suggests the need to think along the lines of the mafia trials in Italy that were transferred from ordinary courts to secret locations with lawyers and judges whose identities were protected. It would be radical, he concedes, but with an effective witness protection programme this approach could administer justice without fear. Measures to protect rights defenders against abuses and investigate instances of such abuses brought to its notice with a view to bringing perpetrators to justice is something the government has systematically ignored and so to fight injustice many more defenders will risk their lives.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014
By Nazish Brohi
The honourable ones are comfortably in the nucleus of power. Whatever else they may or may not be on the same page about, they unite in a fraternity — the Brotherhood of the Ghairat Brigade — when it comes to protecting our hallowed sovereignity.
Every time the state fails in protecting its citizens, or is complicit in persecution of them, the political legitimacy of its sovereignty gets corroded.
With their vigilance, we have been protected against Raymond Davis, Haqqani’s Memos, Kerry Lugar’s incursion into South Punjab, SEAL incursions into Abbotabad and US operated drones. Citizens of Pakistan are now free to be honorably killed by sectarian militants targeting Shias and moderates; by Taliban jihadis targeting dissenters from their world view; by vigilante groups whose faith gets shaken at the slightest pretext or provocation; and indeed, by the state itself. The distance between honour and dishonour is determined by whose weapon one is killed by, it seems.
Because what the guards of honor overlook is that sovereignty necessitates a moral imperative on the state, which is to protect citizens inside its territory. The social contract, through which individuals submit to the authority of rulers in exchange for protection, is the mechanism that bestows political legitimacy on repositories of sovereign power. Every time the state fails in protecting its citizens, or is complicit in persecution of them, the political legitimacy of its sovereignty gets corroded.
While legally representing vulnerable groups, there is pressure and intimidation, but the insecurity felt as an advocate while defending a blasphemy case is unlike anything else
Why then should citizens not simply dispense with this artifice? Consider the signals that emanate from the state itself. Children getting crippled with polio and health workers getting killed did not cause panic as negotiations with the perpetrators continued, till the World Health Organisation wielded a stick and now there are emergency correctives. It took the European Union’s threats to place a moratorium on capital punishments. It took the US Congressional hearing on Balochistan that forced the federal government to look in the southwest direction. It took international threats before the forced declaration from Pakistan that it was illegally transferring nuclear technology. It took the asinine but memorable ‘with us or against us’ ultimatum from the US President before we decided to do something, however nominal, about homegrown Jihadi organisations. All these were important human rights and civil rights issues. The only hope many persecuted citizens of Pakistan have is to claim asylum and protection from other governments of other countries because their own state cannot or will not protect them. Why should people then be vested in the sovereignty discourse? When the state is not even willing to collect taxes due to it on its own without it being a loan conditionality?
This is not to assume that other countries have the best interest of Pakistanis at their heart, but to acknowledge that while they may not, neither does the Pakistani state. Because meanwhile, the very people who could offer the country a way out of this morass, who invested their lives in educating younger generations and enabling those at the margins of society have been systematically targeted and killed such as Parveen Rehman, the director of Orangi Pilot Project; Dr. Farooq Khan, Vice Chancellor of Swat University; Baloch scholar Saba Dashtyari; Muhammad Yousuf, lecturer at NED University; Zarteef Afridi, government school teacher in Khyber Agency and environmental activist Nisar Baloch. This is in addition to targeted killings of scores of Shia lawyers, doctors, teachers and other professionals in Karachi and countless leaders and peace activists in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa — in further addition to the numerous student leaders and educated youth who have ‘disappeared’ from Balochistan.
The recent murder of heroic lawyer Rashid Rehman, announced in advance and defended through pamphlets post killing, highlights state complicity in painful clarity. This inspirational figure was killed by ‘unknown people’ for defending Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer on trial for an implausible charge of blasphemy. The state is not just responsible for allowing a law on statutes that is so open to misuse, but also for not giving Rehman the protection when it was known he was under threat. Above all it is responsible for criminal shortsightedness. While the dividends for removal of the blasphemy law may be marginal and problematic (let’s admit it, there is a narrow constituency for it), it is sheer stupidity to not realise how blasphemy related lynchings harm the very notion of state sovereignty.
As laws in Pakistan profess to be grounded in Islam, the source of the law takes precedence over the contents of the law. Combined with unchecked vigilantism, an ‘autonomous citizenship’ that enables collective premeditated use of force, foments a ‘law implementation drive’ where the drive contravenes the law itself. Until the rule of law is secularised, this dilemma will continue.
The impunity the state allows to non-state actors is inversely proportionate to the state’s monopoly of violence, which continues to recede. In extending this impunity, the state is slow poisoning itself.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014