MY elder son turned eighteen recently, and for me it was a time to reflect on how quickly the years seemed to have gone by. There were triumphs and tears, moments to cherish and some that one would rather forget. Bumps and bruises along with smiles and laughter. It was a slice of life that will never be served again, not exactly. Looking back it feels like it passed far too quickly, and I wonder how many moments were not savoured enough or how many memories have already faded.
And then I imagine what it would have been like to never experience those moments, because I was locked in a solitary cell for 18 years not knowing if I would live another day, and all for a crime I did not commit. Join me in imagining this for a moment, and forgive yourself if a shudder passes through you and your mind screams at you to reject the very thought of it.
This living hell is exactly what Wajih-ul-Hassan has endured for the better part of two decades: long, crawling days, weeks, months and years spent awaiting the noose on blasphemy charges while the rest of us went on with our lives, blissfully unaware.
Just a few days back, the honourable Supreme Court quashed his sentence, writing in the judgment that “There cannot be a fair trial, which is itself the primary purpose of criminal jurisprudence, if the judges have not been able to clearly elucidate the rudimentary concept of the standard of proof that prosecution must meet in order to obtain a conviction.” What this means is that the evidence presented against Hasan was faulty, incomplete, and insufficient to sentence a man to death and, by extension, implied that the judges who announced and then upheld this sentence did not perform their duties, to put it mildly.
Wajih-ul-Hassan endured a living hell for the better part of two decades.
What was this evidence? In 1998, advocate Ismail Qureishi accused Wajih-ul-Hassan of writing blasphemous letters to him under a pen name. The content of these letters was so distasteful for Mr Qureishi that he claims he tore the first letter to pieces and burned it. However, he did present photocopies of subsequent letters to the learned court. How did he know Hassan sent these letters?
Here, Mr Qureshi put on his Sherlock Holmes cap and found a co-worker of Mr Hassan who claimed to have heard him confess to this deed. He also obtained Wajih-ul-Hassan’s handwriting sample and got an ‘expert’ to say that it matched the writing in the photocopies. Thus, on the basis of an extrajudicial confession (essentially hearsay), a few photocopies and a random expert, this prominent lawyer managed to get Hassan arrested.
Now, you may think that this laughable case would be thrown out by the trial court but, in its incomprehensible wisdom, it decided in 2002 to sentence him to death. But that’s all right, you may think, as there is always the option of appealing to a higher court. So a mere eight years later, his appeal was heard by justice (now retired) Ejaz Chaudhry of the Lahore High Court. Examining the same evidence that the Supreme Court later found insufficient, Chaudhry wrote a 20-page judgement in which much praise was heaped on the complainant and some language that can only be described as ‘unparliamentary’ was used for the writer of the allegedly blasphemous letters. So it’s no surprise that the appeal was dismissed and the conviction upheld.
Justice Chaudhry, was later elevated to the Supreme Court and retired with honours and much praised being heaped on him for his services. Ismail Qureishi, his honour satisfied and bloodlust sated, died peacefully some years later.
In the meantime, Wajih-ul-Hassan waited on death row for another nine years before the Supreme Court decided to take up his final appeal. Why the court waited so long when other cases are disposed of far quicker is a question that must be asked, even if it may never be answered.
There are more questions here: how could any judge give a verdict which is against the most basic tenets of justice and the laws of evidence? Should they not be taken to task? Should we not examine other judgements from these judges for implicit bias and miscarriage of justice? How many other innocents have been doomed with the stroke of a pen?
And most crucially, what will become of those who give false testimony and false evidence in such cases?
There at least we have something of an answer. While dismissing the case against Aasia Bibi, Chief Justice Asif Khosa declared that the witnesses who lied under oath would have been jailed for life (the statutory punishment in such cases) had the case not been so ‘sensitive’.
Does sensitivity trump justice? And if so, shall we declare to the Wajih-ul-Hassan’s of Pakistan that our only doctrine is not that of necessity, but of convenience. And of fear.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2019