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Violence, blasphemy charges against lawyers in Pakistan condemned in United States, Canada

The recent detainment of one lawyer and murder of another lawyer in Pakistan illustrates the nation’s troubling attitude toward blasphemy allegations.

Legal and diplomatic voices are among those condemning both the murder of one human rights lawyer in Pakistan and charges made against other lawyers in connection with blasphemy allegations.

Some 68 lawyers were charged recently in a case of blasphemy in Pakistan, after the lawyers protested the detainment of a legal colleague.

In addition, last week, a Pakistani lawyer who had defended a professor whose students had accused him of blasphemy was shot dead at his office in Multan, Reuters said.

The murdered lawyer, identified as Rashid Rehman Khan, was the subject of death threats made in open court, news reports said.

On Tuesday, Mark Thornburg, a State Department spokesperson, told InsideCounsel, “In recent years Pakistani citizens, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have been arrested and convicted for violating blasphemy laws.”

“Such laws are not consistent with universal human rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion,” he added. “We remain concerned about the blasphemy law.  Arbitrary implementation and the absence of clear standards of evidence increase the risk of abuse of this law.”

He said that “a cross-section” of Pakistani leaders have called for “greater protection against abuses of the law.”

The murder and similar incidents raised concerns at the American Bar Association, as well.

“The American Bar Association is deeply concerned about violence against lawyers in Pakistan,” James R. Silkenat, president of the American Bar Association, said in a statement released Tuesday to InsideCounsel. “Any fair justice system relies on those accused of crimes having access to counsel and the opportunity to offer a full defense in an impartial court.  The rule of law is imperiled when lawyers are subject to intimidation and violence for representing their clients."

Meanwhile, during the recent protest, lawyers yelled out slogans against a police officer, Umar Daraz, because of the detainment of the lawyer in the Jhang district. The lawyers want five police officers arrested for their alleged abuse of the lawyer, news reports said.

"Lawyers were protesting against police, using foul language and the name of the inspector," the district's police officer, Zeeshan Asghar, explained in a statement to Reuters.

It appears to be a coincidence that a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, had the name of “Hazrat Umar.”

Yet, someone associated with the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat movement, who The New York Times described as a “Sunni extremist leader,” found it offensive because the lawyers were using the name “Umar” at the protest – and the police were contacted.

The Guardian reported that Mushtaq Chaudhry, a local lawyer, said the lawyers were not shouting slogans against Umar – the historic religious leader – but the police officer who has the same name.

"Our Bar Association has … passed a resolution that slogans were not raised against any sacred personality of Islam," Chaudhry was quoted in the newspaper.

Muhammad Afzal Sial, president of the local bar association, added in an interview with the Times, “Certain elements tried to exploit the situation.”

In Pakistan, blasphemy can result in the death penalty, under the nation’s laws, according to news reports. But no one has been put to death for blasphemy by a court – in recent memory.

In prior cases, judges have set free defendants charged with blasphemy – only to have the judges later attacked in retribution.

Also, some of the defendants – after their release – were lynched, news reports claim. The Center for Research and Security Studies estimates that over 50 defendants accused of blasphemy were lynched since 1990.

There were 80 complaints of blasphemy in 2011, compared to one case in 2001. In addition, “at least 16 people in Pakistan are on death row for blasphemy, although none have been executed, and a minimum of 20 are serving life terms, while others are imprisoned but not convicted,” according to the ABA Journal.

For those arrested in the recent protest, the maximum sentence is believed to be three years in prison if the case goes to trial and they are convicted, according to the BBC.

In response to the murder, Zohra Yusuf, who chairs the chairs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, was quoted, "We have lost four human rights defenders in the last three years. Others are under constant threat. The state does not even notice.”

Following the recent murder, a pamphlet was distributed in Multan which said the lawyer’s death was his "rightful end" after trying to "save someone who disrespected the Prophet Muhammad," Reuters reported based on the contents in the pamphlet. "We warn all lawyers to be afraid of god and think twice before engaging in such acts.”

Khan apparently was warned to “stop representing his client, from five people: two prosecutors on the blasphemy case and three unidentified men,” according to a statement from Lawyer's Rights Watch Canada.

The human rights group also says the threats were reported in April to several Pakistani government officials including: the police; the district administration of Multan; the bar association; and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

“The judge hearing the blasphemy case was apparently aware of threatening remarks allegedly made by [the] … two prosecutors. Apparently Mr. Khan was advised by the local administration of the district that no action on the threats was planned,” Lawyer's Rights Watch Canada said in the statement.

“The murder of Mr. Khan signals a crisis in Pakistan,” the statement added. “The GOP [Government of Pakistan] has apparently not acted to quell or even discourage, lawless and brutal vigilantism against people peacefully promoting religious tolerance and defending human rights.” 

As reports of the murder reached the United States, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said last week, “We encourage Pakistani authorities, as we have in similar cases in Pakistan and around the world, to swiftly investigate this crime and bring to justice those responsible. We continue to coordinate and cooperate closely with Pakistani authorities.”

In addition, Qasim Rashid an attorney and national spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA, was also concerned about recent events in Pakistan.

"Over the past 30 years hundreds of Pakistan's Ahmadi Muslims have been killed, millions disenfranchised from voting, all Ahmadi literature banned, Ahmadi mosques desecrated and closed, and Ahmadi tombs demolished. This intolerance and violence is closely linked to the rise of blasphemy laws in Pakistan,” Rashid told InsideCounsel. “This draconian legislation silences dissent, promotes extremism, terrorism, and intolerance, and stifles intellectual progress. It is not possible for Pakistan to progress as a nation while its blasphemy legislation is in place. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community calls on Pakistan to repeal this barbaric legislation and once again champion universal freedom of conscience as required by binding and ratified international law.”

In response to the murder, Lawyer's Rights Watch Canada also has called for an investigation that is independent of Pakistan’s authorities which failed to address earlier threats; prosecution of the suspects; an investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan “to determine why no protection was provided to Mr. Khan and to identify state authorities responsible for failing or refusing to provide protection”; disciplinary proceedings “against those responsible for refusing or failing to provide protection”; and setting up a “First Response Service” to offer “immediate protection to lawyers and other human rights defenders who believe themselves to be in jeopardy because of their work.” 

 

Further reading:

European Court provides guidance on religious freedom in the workplace

The EEOC offers guidance on religious garb and grooming in the workplace

 
 

Contributing Author

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Ed Silverstein

Ed Silverstein is a veteran writer and editor for magazines, websites and newspapers. A graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he has won several...

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