The barbaric killing of Rashid Rehman a prominent lawyer, rights activist, and Regional Coordinator of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan is extremely painful and depressing. This tragic event poses serious questions over the legal fraternity (that includes lawyers and judges) and criminal justice system in Pakistan.
He was killed by forces of extremism who had earlier warned him either to face total extinction or withdraw from serving as a defense counsel of Junaid Hafeez, a professor of Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan facing criminal trial for an alleged offence under blasphemy law. But it becomes more painful to know that on the last hearing of the case, the threat of killing came from his colleagues in the profession who were prosecuting the accused.
I wonder if they were acting as lawyers or agents of killers. This threat was posed right in the presence of the judge holding the court in Multan jail, obviously for security risks. Rashid’s call for providing security was ignored by the district administration and others concerned. There has been no word on this gruesome cold blooded murder from those who are heading the judicial system or those who are ruling the country. Why are they quiet over this highly outrageous event of death threat that happened in a court of law and justice?
Should the common man draw the logical conclusion that the state and its system of government and justice have crumbled? This tragedy also leaves behind questions for the Pakistan Bar Council and other Bar Associations for conflict resolution.
I, as a lawyer of a standing of about four decades at the Bar, understand that as long as any offence is part of the Penal Code, the punishment cannot be pronounced until the trial is held. The procedure for such trial is provided under Criminal Procedure Code of 1898 and the Evidence Act now known as Qanoon-e-Shahadat. The criminal law provides fair trial to the accused and especially as a fundamental right of a citizen under the Constitution (Eighteenth Amendment) Act of 2010 that guarantees the right of fair trial under Article 10-A of the constitution of the country.
The rule of benefit of doubt occupies a pivotal place in the Islamic Law and enforced rigorously. And in the light of this rule, the prosecution is obliged to prove its case against the accused beyond any reasonable doubt and if it fails to do so the accused is entitled to benefit of doubt as a matter of right.
"In view of the saying of Holy Prophet (PBUH) the mistake of Qazi (judge) in releasing a criminal is better than his mistake in punishing an innocent" (as reported in PLD 2002 Supreme Court 1048). The well-celebrated old legal maxim that ‘no one should be condemned without being heard’ hold good across the world.
Here in this case, not only the accused is being condemned before trial but his lawyer was also condemned. Rashid Rehman became victim of this pre-trial condemnation. The lawyer community has condemned the killing of their lawyer brother across the country. Have the judiciary and the government thought of other cases pending adjudication under blasphemy law? Does their silence on this serious issue mean that they cannot face this challenge? Do they really want to run the system of justice on the established principles of criminal justice? These are serious issues that need to be addressed in time.
The argument stands defeated that in the absence of provisions relating to blasphemy in the Pakistan Penal Code the people would take law in their own hands for punishing the accused. The religious extremists are already taking law in their own hands. They assert that they are the sole interpreters of the divine word. They sit in judgment to become the sole arbiters to proclaim what is good and what is bad. They not only pronounce punishments but daringly are executing their self proclaimed religious decrees. Such vigilantes punish individuals and communities as well.
Can this system survive under the obtaining situation? It certainly is under serious threat. Apparently, the rulers lack the political will and courage to maintain the social order. They are certainly failing in the mandate and the confidence people have reposed in them through electoral exercise.
It has been admitted at all hands that this law on blasphemy is being abused for settling personal score, professional rivalry, land grabbing, and, of course, for religious persecution. Despite this sad situation the state runners seemed to have succumbed to pressure of the religious lobby as they fail to find out some judicious solution.
Who dares to blaspheme the Holy Prophet and the Holy Quran in this highly charged religious atmosphere? None but a mentally deranged person may do so who, under law, is immune from indictment as he does not understand what he is doing. It is high time that some remedial measures are adopted, otherwise this justice system is seriously at stake.
The Pakistani society is exploding with extremism, militancy, and intolerance in almost every walk of life but in the name of religion it has grown beyond proportions. The society stands hostage in the hands of religious extremist, militantly organised outfits and the zealots acting as vigilante ready to attack individuals and communities and marginalised sections of the society.
The state policies declared the state and religion of the majority in danger and, thus, a security paradigm was adopted and practised and in order to cement this thought the syllabi for educational institutions was designed that was based on hate material and baneful sentiment of religious prejudice.
This divisive paradigm has produced highly negative results in three generations due to education based on sectarianism. Religious extremism and militancy has mainstreamed the national narrative. The non-state actors earlier engaged in ill-advised wars are now claiming to be stakeholders in the state structure. They are challenging the writ of the state and its system of governance.
Socio-religious harmony and tolerance has eroded to the zero point.
The legal fraternity responsible to practise law and the constitution seem to have taken deep influence of the undemocratic and divisive doctrine. The social order of this country is at stake. The Bar Associations of our country had been centers of diversity and debate but normal social discourse has no space any more.
This culture of dialogue and diversity needs to be revived and spirit of fraternity needs to be inculcated afresh. The solution lies in the political will of the rulers who must have the courage to be honest in adopting resuscitative measures, otherwise the society would eventually disintegrate.
The democratic and progressive forces need to join hands together to come out with pro-people counter narrative of pluralistic social order, peace, tolerance, harmony, and social justice. Such a just and democratic order can only be established if progressive forces become dominant political force.