A university lecturer has been sentenced to death in Pakistan for blaspheming against Islam, drawing international attention to a verdict that independent United Nations human rights monitors have criticized as a “travesty of justice.”
The academician, Junaid Hafeez, taught English literature at Bahauddin Zakariya University, a government-run institution in Multan, a city in central Pakistan that is one of the nation’s most influential economic and political centers. He graduated in English literature from the university before going to the United States as a Fulbright scholar at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
Hafeez, 33, was arrested in 2013 after some Islamic hardliners among his students accused him of making derogatory remarks about Islam and its holy book, the Quran, in his lectures as well as in anonymous Facebook posts. The lecturer, who is Muslim, has been languishing in solitary confinement ever since.
Pakistan has some of the world’s strictest blasphemy laws. “Insults” to the Prophet Muhammad are punishable by a mandatory death sentence. Critics have long maintained, however, that not only are the laws unfairly used to target members of minority religions and liberal activists, but that the accusations against them are often flimsy or concocted to settle personal grievances.
The December 21 verdict against Hafeez in a court in Multan was condemned by several UN experts who monitor issues related to freedom of religion, torture, and arbitrary detentions and executions.
They pointed out that the verdict was particularly objectionable in light of the fact that in 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned a death sentence in a prominent blasphemy case against a Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi. A farmhand, Bibi was accused of blasphemy in 2010 and promptly locked up. She remained in solitary confinement until Pakistan’s highest court acquitted her for lack of evidence, which sparked angry street protests and threats against her. After initially preventing Bibi from leaving Pakistan, the government allowed her to seek asylum in May 2019.
Bibi’s acquittal ought to have set a precedent “to dismiss any blasphemy case that has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt,” the UN monitors said. They also pointed out Hafeez’s first lawyer, Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights activist, was murdered in his office in 2014 after religious extremists, as well as members of the prosecution team, publicly threatened him in court. Rehman’s murder, together with the fact that his killers were never identified or brought to justice, cast a shadow over the entire case.
“There seems to be a climate of fear among members of the judiciary handling this case, which may explain why at least seven judges were transferred during this lengthy trial,” the UN experts said.
They also noted that not only does international law permit the death penalty only in exceptional circumstances, but that it is only justifiable in cases where there is incontrovertible evidence of intent to commit murder. “The death sentence imposed on Mr. Hafeez has no basis in either law or evidence,” they said, adding that “carrying out the sentence would amount to an arbitrary killing.”
Among those in the international community who have sought Hafeez’s freedom is U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. In July 2019, he urged Pakistani authorities to release the academician.
Hafeez is eligible to appeal the Multan court’s decision to a higher court as well as the Supreme Court.
Although nobody in Pakistan has yet been executed for committing blasphemy, according to a tally by the television news network Al Jazeera, at least 75 people connected with blasphemy accusations have been murdered in the country since 1990. They include people accused of the crime as well as those acquitted by the courts. Lawyers, family members and judges linked to their cases have also been killed.
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