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William Stark, Regional Manager for Africa
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Sixty-Eight Lawyers in Pakistan Charged with Blasphemy
Series of Incidents Involving Pakistan's Blasphemy Law Highlights Widespread Abuse
International Christian Concern
International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that 68 lawyers in Pakistan have had blasphemy charges filed against them after holding a series of protests. This is just the latest in a series of incidents highlighting the abuse of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. Last week, a defense lawyer in a blasphemy case was gunned down after receiving death threats in open court. These events were preceded by three Christians being sentenced to death after being convicted of committing blasphemy, and the continued delay in the case appealing the blasphemy conviction against Asia Bibi.
On May 13, police in Jhang, a district in central Punjab, filed blasphemy charges against a group of 68 lawyers. The complaint was filed following several days of street protests held by the lawyers against local senior police official, Umar Daraz. As part of the protest, the lawyers called Daraz a dog and referred to the police officer by his first name which he shares with a revered historical figure in Islam who was a companion of the prophet Mohammed.
During one of the protests, the leader of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a Sunni extremist group, was present at the police station. He claimed the lawyers were insulting the name of the religious figure when they were using Daraz's first name. A few days later, one of the leader's associates lodged a formal blasphemy complaint against the 68 lawyers which was officially filed on Tuesday.
"Call it our bad luck," Zeeshan Asghar, the local police chief, told the New York Times in a phone interview in regards to the presence of the Sunni extremist group leader during the protests.
"The hatred and extremism fostered by the blasphemy law has brought Pakistan's society to the edge," Mrs. Gulnaz Yousaf, Chairperson of Dignity First, told ICC. "I don't see hope for future generations in Pakistan." Commenting on the recent charges brought against the 68 lawyers, Mrs. Yousaf said, "Now, no one can have any doubt regarding the abuse of Pakistan's blasphemy laws. For decades, the law has been abused as a tool to settle personal scores."
This mass blasphemy charge follows almost a week after lawyer Rashid Rehman was gunned down by unidentified assailants in his office in the southern city of Multan on May 7. Rehman was likely murdered because he was the lead defense lawyer representing a university lecturer accused of blasphemy. Weeks preceding his murder, Rehman publicly complained about receiving death threats in open court from lawyers of the prosecution who said he would face "dire consequences" for defending an accused blasphemer.
These events in May follow a series of prosecutions under the blasphemy law against members of Pakistan's minority Christian population. On April 4, a trial court in Gojra sentenced a Christian couple, Shafkat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, to death for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages ignoring many pieces of evidence demonstrating the couple's innocence. On March 27, a trial court in Lahore sentenced Christian Sawan Masih to death for allegedly insulting the prophet Mohammed during a drunken argument with a Muslim neighbor.
The result of these decisions has quadrupled the number of Christians accused of blasphemy on death row in Pakistan. These three Christians join Asia Bibi, who was, in 2010, the first woman to be sentenced to death under the blasphemy law and whose appeal has already been postponed four times due to pressure from radical Islamic groups.
ICC's Regional Manager, William Stark, said, "This series of incidents involving Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law should clearly highlight the abuse of the law for the international community. Originally written to protect against religious intolerance, the law has warped into a tool used by extremists to settle personal scores and persecute Pakistan's vulnerable religious minorities. In 2013, 36 individuals were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan. Of that 36, 30 were religious minorities, 12 of which were Christians. Given that Christians only make up 2% of Pakistan's population, the fact that one third of blasphemy accusations made in 2013 were leveled against Christians is highly disturbing. Beyond being disproportionately accused and convicted of blasphemy, the vast majority of blasphemy accusations brought against Christians are false. Pressure for Islamic radical groups and general discrimination against Christians in Pakistan has transformed trial courts into little more than rubber stamps for blasphemy accusations bought against Christian, regardless of the evidence brought to bear in the case."
For interviews, contact William Stark, Regional Manager for Africa: RM-AfricaAsia@persecution.org
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