Criminal Justice

Lawyer defending academic in blasphemy case is fatally shot at office; other lawyers go on strike

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For months, a lecturer at a Pakistani university jailed in a blasphemy case was unable to find a lawyer to represent him: They feared violent reprisals and even death at the hands of extremist religious groups. Then a lawyer who initially agreed to take the case stepped aside because of threats.

Finally, a prominent human rights lawyer, Rashid Rehman, agreed in February to defend Junaid Hafeez, and stayed in the case despite death threats made against him in open court April 9, according to the BBC News, the New York Times (reg. req.) and Reuters.

On Wednesday evening, Rehman was fatally shot at his law office in Multan by gunmen posing as clients in a matrimonial case. Reports differ concerning the fate of two assistants in the office with him; Newsweek Pakistan says they were also fatally shot. One of the other two victims was an unidentified junior lawyer, according to Reuters.

Police said the shooting was the first time a lawyer has ever been slain in Multan for his work in a blasphemy case.

But Rehman, before his slaying, had described his representation of Hafeez as “walking into the jaws of death,” the Times reports.

“There is fanaticism and intolerance in society, and such people never consider whether their accusation is right or wrong,” he told BBC Urdu last month, according to the Times. “People kill for 50 rupees. So why should anyone hesitate to kill in a blasphemy case?”

And Zohra Yusuf, who chairs the chairs the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, for which Rehman worked, said the high-risk nature of such defense work is well-known, reports Reuters.

“We have lost four human rights defenders in the last three years. Others are under constant threat. The state does not even notice,” she said.

HRCP says nothing was done by law enforcement authorities in response to courtroom threats three men—two of them lawyers—to Rehman, concerning his representation of Hafeez.

After Rehman’s death, an anonymous pamphlet was circulated in Multan. It said Rehman reached his his “rightful end” for attempting to “save someone who disrespected the Prophet Muhammad,” the Reuters article continues. “We warn all lawyers to be afraid of god and think twice before engaging in such acts,” the pamphlet also stated.

On Thursday, fellow attorneys in Multan went on strike in protest of Rehman’s death.

“We are observing a strike and no lawyer will appear in any court today to mourn and protest the killing of our colleague,” Sher Zaman Qureshi, who serves as president of the District Bar Association Multan, told Newsweek Pakistan. “We demand that the killers of Rashid Rehman should be arrested immediately.”

Allah Dad Khan, a friend of Rehman’s, told Newsweek Pakistan that Rehman was known for his extensive pro bono work.

“He always had a smile at his face when he met people and clients and he used to be very happy when helping the needy,” said Khan of Rehman, adding: “He was never afraid of anything and when colleagues and friends asked him not to take sensitive cases he used to reply that one should not be afraid of death, one can die because of mosquito bite.”

The country’s blasphemy law is controversial, and considered a mechanism for the persecution of religious minorities and the pursuit of personal attacks, the Times article says, noting that those convicted can be sentenced to death.

Reuters reports that 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.

In a 2012 report, the Center for Research and Security Studies said more than 50 people accused of blasphemy have been lynched since 1990.

See also:

Wall Street Journal (sub. req.): “Increasing Violence in Pakistan Surrounding Blasphemy Cases Deters Opposition”

Updated on May 9 to link to Wall Street Journal article.

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