- Another trademark of a blasphemy case in Pakistan is that it is not talked about in public.
- When discussed on television or on social media, a carefully selected vocabulary with precise edits is used.
He has been waiting for justice for six years in his solitary confinement.
He was a lecturer of English at the Bahuddin Zakariya University, Multan, Punjab, Pakistan. A gold medalist from Dera Ghazi Khan, having been awarded the Fulbright scholarship in 2009, he went to the Jackson State University, in Jackson, Mississippi, USA, where he studied American literature, photography and theatre. In 2011, he was back at the Bahuddin Zakariya University. Now he was a post-graduate student and a visiting lecturer. Not many students and teachers liked him for his ideas–progressive, receptive to discussion, unorthodox. He was one of them yet he dared to be different. That didn’t last long.
On March 13, 2013, a group of students from the religious organisations, Jamaat-e-Islami and Tehreek-Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat, joined by fifteen hundred other like-minded young people, held a protest against the young lecturer, barely a few years older than most of the students. Pamphlets were distributed, and speeches were made. He was accused of blasphemy for having a Facebook page that reportedly challenged clergy’s hypocrisy. Those who misuse religion for their organisational hegemony have a linear response to any challenge to their authority: absolute repudiation, often through enforced silence. No questions are permissible, not even well-meaning ones. Questions equal desecration of religion.
His arrest happened soon. The case was filed under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code. 295-C despite other punishments in its domain is known for its death award. He was jailed in Sahiwal, Punjab, Pakistan.
His name was Junaid Hafeez. He was twenty-seven years old. His life froze at twenty-seven. His life would never be the same.
Once you are accused of blasphemy, it becomes irrelevant whether you are hanged or not. What becomes as clear as the rationed slivers of sunlight in your cell is that justice is a dream that is shattered and re-dreamed every day. Justice takes its own time. Sometimes, ten years as in the case of Asia bibi, sometimes, eighteen years as in the case of Wajih-ul-Hassan.
Blasphemy not discussed
Another trademark of a blasphemy case in Pakistan is that it is not talked about in public. When discussed on television or on social media, a carefully selected vocabulary with precise edits is used. In a country that is ninety-seven percent Muslim, the emphasis on protection of Islam is synonymous with true faith. The truth of the placement of religion at a level higher than that of any human ideology is undisputed in a system that holds a higher power to be the creator of the world and beyond. The perplexing point is the human insistence on being the guardian of that truth. The more perplexing point is the existence of self-avowed vigilantism for a faith believed to be a divine creation. Would it ever be in need of human protection?
The twisting of the words of TV anchors and their guests into blasphemous declarations is infrequent but it is nothing less than a set of landmines in a narrow field. The accusation is hyped with hashtags and made viral to turn the utterer of the ‘blasphemous’ words into a vigilante bullseye.
Justice for a person accused of blasphemy is in the list of the impossible in Pakistan. A discussion on justice for a person accused of blasphemy guarantees a flurry of commentary, mostly negative, mostly ominous. A demand for justice of a person accused on blasphemy is seen as the endorsement of the unacceptable, complicity in a sin that is unforgivable. The absence in the Holy Quran of any worldly punishment for blasphemy is irrelevant to the self-appointed protectors of religion.
Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, one of the most respected contemporary scholars of Islam, and one of the rare religious luminaries to speak up after the assassination of the then governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer in January 2011, also spoke up after the April 2017 killing of Mashal Khan, a student of the Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
Ghamidi said: “Our scholars and clerics do not pay attention to educate the masses. People are not taught how to behave and treat each other according to Islam. It is the responsibility of ulema to tell people that their actions, provoking people in the name of Islam and spreading hatred, are against the teachings of Allah and the Prophet (PBUH).”
Ghamidi also said: “Our state is afraid of ulema and emotions of people. If they take up this issue their seats would be in danger. But it is time ulema and politicians step forward to tackle this issue. They should tell the people that blasphemy is against the Prophet’s (PBUH) teachings. It is not the message of Allah or Islam.”
The most important thing that Ghamidi said in 2011 and in 2017 is what should be the crux of any blasphemy debate in Pakistan but is brushed aside in pious indignation for its ‘unsuitability’ to the prevalent theories, the man-made ones, on the issue of blasphemy. Ghamidi quoting the main source of divine knowledge for human beings, the Holy Quran, said: “The Blasphemy Law [of Pakistan] is against the Quran, Hadith, and even Fiqh-e-Hanafi. Allah did not reveal it. This law is also an insult to Islam.”
Javed Ahmed Ghamidi lives in self-exile since 2011. The life of one of Pakistan’s most esteemed religious scholars and that of his family was in danger in the Pakistan that has Islamic in its name.
The story of Junaid Hafeez waiting in solitary confinement in a jail then in Multan became a global headline when his lawyer, a human rights activist, Rashed Rehman, was killed in Multan. Rehman was the only lawyer who had the courage to take Hafeez’s case when most could not. In a country where terrorists, serial killers and rapists get the due legal process, a blasphemy accused is expected to rot in jail without a fair trial. Hafeez’s first lawyer excused himself from the case in 2013 after receiving multiple life threats. He probably knew that in Pakistan, a threat made in a blasphemy case is not mere rhetoric. It could be a very real countdown to death.
Rehman worked for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan; he received numerous, open threats after he became Hafeez’s lawyer. The threats not only emanated from members of clergy but also from the lawyers on the opposing side. Rehman reported their names to police. Nothing happened. After Rehman’s murder, instead of being arrested for abetment to murder through their public threats to him made in the presence of a judge, in all probability, they did not receive a word of reprimand. It is the world in which lawyers rose-garlanded Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of Salmaan Taseer.
The Human Rights Watch reported in 2018 that in 2017, seventeen people accused of blasphemy were on the death row, and hundreds of others were waiting for trial.
In 2018, the International Human Rights Commission sent a petition to Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan: “[We] appeal you to take immediate action into the case of Mr. Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer of Bahauddin Zakaria University, Multan, who is languishing in a prison for more than five years, where the wardens and prisoners are threatening him with dire consequences.”
A rarity in Pakistan is a celebrity speaking up for a blasphemy accused. Hamza Ali Abbasi, actor, posted two tweets on June 28, 2019:
“Such injustice done in the name of my beloved Prophet [PBUH). This man has been in jail since 2013 on vague blasphemy charges. We need to improve the blasphemy law by defining Blasphemy as a PUBLIC ACT & have room for apology.”
“Yes I mourn for Tabrez Ansari and victims of frequent mob lynchings in India by Hindu extremists but we also need to raise a voice for victims of extremism in our homeland. Mr Junaid's lawyer Rashid Rehman was also murdered. This needs to stop. Ya Allah help us eradicate such jahalat (illiteracy).”
In July 2019, US Vice President Mike Pence, during a summit of religious freedom in Washington, prior to his visit to Pakistan, said: “In Pakistan, Professor Junaid Hafeez remains in solitary confinement on unsubstantiated charges of blasphemy... Today, the United States of America calls upon the governments of Eritrea, Mauritania, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia [for jailing of religious ‘dissidents’] to respect the rights of conscience of these men, and let these men go.”
In September 2019, the Amnesty International demanded the “immediate and unconditional release” of Hafeez. Rabia Mehmood, Regional Researcher at Amnesty International, said: “Junaid’s case is a travesty. Pakistani authorities must guarantee his safety and that of his family and legal representatives. Their failure to do so in the past has already borne the worst consequences. Junaid’s lengthy trial has gravely affected his mental and physical health, endangered him and his family and exemplifies the misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The authorities must release him immediately and unconditionally and drop all charges against him.”
In November 2019, Scholars at Risk, an international organisation for protection of the “rights of scholars suffering grave threats to their lives and liberty”, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Khan and Chief Justice Khosa, “expressing its concern over Junaid Hafeez’s incarceration and to call for expediting the resolution of his case.”
In December 2019, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said: “Hafeez and his family had been facing murder threats.”
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On November 26, 2019, Hafeez’s parents after six years of solitary confinement of their son, made an appeal for mercy to Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa. Having lost hope in the legal system of Pakistan, Hafeez’s parents saw a glimmer of light after the Supreme Court’s exoneration of cases against Asia bibi and Wajih-ul-Hassan. The Hafeez case that has had eight transfers of judges since 2013, and is stagnant even after the last testimony of a police officer months ago, may remain unheard until the highest court of Pakistan pays attention. Hafeez’s case must reach a court.
On December 11, Reuters reported: “A Pakistani court will hear final arguments on Thursday in the blasphemy trial of a liberal scholar and former university lecturer a week after a US religious freedom commission placed his name on its list of global victims, his lawyer said.”
If you are charged with a man-made law, a due process of justice is your human, moral, legal and constitutional right. It is not a favour or an act of clemency. The six years of solitary confinement without being legally charged in not merely a travesty of justice it is inhuman. Chief Justice Khosa is the last hope for justice for Hafeez.
As I hope for justice for Junaid Hafeez, I say a silent prayer for those nameless, faceless others who, terrified, broken, forgotten, in their solitary confinement, wait for someone to reach them. Before they forget to dream of justice, I hope someone will hear their pleas made in despair, in darkness. Allah listens. His people don’t.