OVER the years, as self-anointed ‘defenders of the faith’ have multiplied in a rightward-drifting Pakistan, the number of people accused of ‘offences against religion’ has gone up exponentially.
As reported in this paper, the Punjab prosecution department, in collaboration with the home and police departments, has shortlisted 50 undertrial blasphemy cases to be fast-tracked in which the state itself will defend the accused.
According to the government, the selected cases — chosen from 262 being tried in different courts in Punjab from 2010 to date — are of those who have been languishing behind bars due to lack of, or weak, evidence and non-availability of counsel.
Further, it has been said, the accused in these cases are ones who have been ‘victimised’ and that some of them may also be medically examined to gauge their mental health.
It is encouraging that Punjab is making efforts to expedite matters for those who appear to have either been unjustly charged with blasphemy, or deprived of their right to due process in such cases.
However, the criteria for their selection say much about the radicalisation of this society, in which vigilante justice in matters of faith is often feted rather than vilified.
Why are there such few lawyers available to defend blasphemy accused? Because lawyers defending such individuals are deemed guilty by association, sometimes by those who themselves have sworn to uphold the law.
Advocate Rashid Rehman, shortly before his murder in May last year, received death threats from fellow lawyers for defending a blasphemy accused. Then there is the blasphemy law itself, and the procedural requirements according to which someone can be charged under it.
While no one should have to fear being charged with a crime — any crime — in the absence of the requisite prima facie evidence, a charge of blasphemy instantly stigmatises the individual and invites the risk of violence against him.
Several such accused have been murdered behind bars, some even after being acquitted. A revisiting of the blasphemy law, at the very least, to prevent false allegations based on vendetta or even pure mischief, is thus urgently required.
Finally, it would have been appropriate if some of the cases selected for speedy trials involved accused that belong to minority faiths.
For while allegations of blasphemy menace Muslims and non-Muslims alike, minorities are especially vulnerable, with entire communities driven out of their homes in paroxysms of faith-based violence.
Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2015