JUNAID Hafeez was arrested on March 13, 2013, after an FIR was registered accusing him of blasphemy. At the time, he was a visiting lecturer in English literature at Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU), in the city of Multan. His period of incarceration in a high security ward of New Central Jail Multan has now reached six and a half years. During this period, his first lawyer, Rashid Rehman (an HRCP organiser in Multan), was shot dead just a year into this ordeal. Shot dead, mind you, for simply undertaking his occupational obligation.
Junaid’s case would be somewhat familiar to regular readers of this newspaper. Unlike other avenues in the mainstream press, it has received some coverage online and in print on these pages. But limitations of the medium, along with the heightened sensitivity of the case, mean that this coverage has been sporadic and ultimately insufficient given the unceasing magnitude of unfairness.
The details of this case, as recently summarised by Zarrar Khuhro on these pages in May of this year, make it clear that it is a witch-hunt. A total of nine judges have been cycled through the life of this frequently transferred case; the prosecution, police witnesses, and private lawyers have, wherever possible attempted to thwart any progress in the judicial proceedings; and these so-called witnesses have reportedly failed to furnish anything that would implicate Junaid for the crime he has allegedly committed and been doing time in solitary confinement for.
Junaid Hafeez’s case is yet another litmus test for all those claiming to uphold justice in this country.
These are facts that have already been established, though bear repeating simply to gain a sense of how deeply problematic the entire process has been. Of more immediate (and alarming) consequence are recent developments that seek to derail the trial and any hope of Junaid’s already long overdue exoneration: On Sept 3, the cross-examination of the last prosecution witness (PW15) was completed. Upon its conclusion, the court fixed the case for hearing on Sept 11 with the understanding brought on record that the prosecution would submit any additional evidence it had, and make a statement to close its evidence after which the court had to question the accused under the relevant law.
However, in a surprise move, the prosecution came up with three more distressing applications. One particular application seeks forensic examination from the Punjab Forensic Agency of a laptop and a mobile phone allegedly recovered from the accused on March 13, 2013, even though the police had gathered digital evidence in June 2013 and got the same examined from the laboratory. A report for the same was received by the prosecution service in January 2015. Earlier, the police completed its investigation in June 2013. There was no indication in the investigation report submitted in court that the prosecution intended to get the allegedly recovered laptop and mobile phone examined from forensic experts after six years.
Revealed preferences over the preceding six and a half years indicate that the prosecution’s latest move on Sept 11 is meant to cause further delay to the proceedings. On top of that, it would be within the remit of reason to suggest that these tactics seek to induce another transfer of the honourable judge or at least bring the honourable judge under pressure. The decision on these vexing applications by the prosecution is expected to be taken on Sept 25.
These are worrying developments that, if actualised, would allow the ongoing travesty of justice to continue. With such bureaucratic pressures and complications dictating a young academic’s fate, the case falls at the intersection of several rotten tendencies within Pakistan’s social and political sphere.
It reflects the challenges that citizens face in obtaining justice within the constitutionally guaranteed parameters of fairness and efficiency. It reflects the regressive and violent mindsets that have germinated across the country and have found benefactors and allies within the corridors of (often-localised) power. And it speaks to the anti-intellectualism that has destroyed the fabric of higher education by rendering it as a tool for accumulating credentials and, simultaneously, a platform to consolidate an unquestioned, one-dimensional (and shallow) view of the world.
This last point is the one that should worry every thinking and empathetic citizen in this country, however few are left. As demonstrated by the murder of Prof Khalid Hameed by a student in May this year, and the lynching of Mashal Khan two years earlier, the shadow of self-righteous and deeply regressive rage looms large on a sphere of life normatively responsible for inculcating critical thinking, dialogue, and self-reflection. Despite the odd protest by already besieged progressive activists, and the government’s rhetoric to prevent such cases in the future, there appears to be no systematic attempt at understanding and ultimately addressing a rot that allows such heinous crimes to be committed in the name of faith.
In many ways then, Junaid Hafeez’s case is yet another litmus test for all those claiming to uphold justice and fairness in this country. Every other day we have all manners of saviours proclaiming from some lofty office of the state or the other about their ideals and aspirations for this country. This particular trial speaks directly to ideals and aspirations such as rationality, intellectual freedoms, and academic rigour, which if realised can only help the state grow stronger, more liberated, and more equipped to deal with its myriad challenges.
And even if one does not believe in all such aspirations, the unnecessary and agonisingly lengthy incarceration of a young, talented person, who sacrificed greater material opportunities to serve his community, should sadden and enrage in equal measures. At this point one can only hope and pray that this ordeal ends soon.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at LUMS and is a member of the Lahore chapter of the Progressive Academics’ Collective.
Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2019