09/27/2019, 18.01
PAKISTAN
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Pakistani Supreme Court acquits a man accused of blasphemy after 18 years in prison

by Shafique Khokhar

Sentenced to death in 2002, Wajih ul Hassan saw his conviction upheld later by the Lahore High Court. “Who will return him 18 long years of his life?” asks one observer, an educator. “Will society and state rethink the blasphemy law? The answer is NO.” For this reason, “we feel for Mr Wajih’s family and beg forgiveness from them”.

 

Islamabad (AsiaNews) – The Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted a man accused of blasphemy who spent 18 years in prison. Wajih ul Hassan was sentenced to death in 2002 by a court in Lahore for insulting the Prophet Muhammad under Section 295C of the Pakistani Penal Code.

Speaking to AsiaNews, some activists expressed satisfaction for the acquittal and displeasure over what Hassan had to endure, namely imprisonment for so many years for a “crime” that he not committed. "Murder may be the most heinous of crimes, but it is worse to hold an innocent person behind bars for 18 years," says Hamza Arshad, educator and journalist.

On Wednesday, three justices, led by Sajjad Ali Shah, ruled that the evidence presented against the accused was insufficient to send him to the gallows and so ordered his release. At present, he is still at the Kot Lakhpath prison. The justices reiterated that in such controversial cases, where the key piece of evidence is an alleged blasphemous letter, "the presumption of innocence" must prevail.

"After Rimsha Masih and Asia Bibi, Wajih ul Hassan is a third case in which a blasphemy victim is acquitted by a higher court,” notes Hashir Ibne Irshad, director of EXIST Communications. “Mostly, lower courts never acquit the victims.”

In such cases, trials are very expensive and families have to sell everything to pay for legal fees, which leaves them in indigence and pain.

For Irshad, “There is dire need of procedural changes in blasphemy cases, accuser and victim should be both sent to jail till justice is done. I think then there will be no one who will file a false case against anyone.”

“In Pakistan, the justice system is riddled with loopholes from bottom to top.” The courts “are not transparent and fair. Blasphemy laws are applied against the victims just to settle personal scores. Sometimes the higher courts free the accused after many years in jail without knowing whether the person has been died or not.”

For Michelle Chaudhary, executive director of the Cecil and Iris Chaudhary Foundation, the “question is: ‘Has justice really been served?’ A person spends [almost] 19 long years of his life on death row for a crime that he did not commit; a crime that could not be proven in a court of law.”

“Who is going to hold all those accountable for falsely accusing Wajih ul Hassan of blasphemy? It is about time that the accusers of false blasphemy accusations are held accountable; if there was no evidence against him then why was he sentenced to death by the Sessions Court? Why did the Lahore High Court uphold that death sentence?

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws “are so draconian in nature that mobs take matters in their hand and the accused are either lynched to death or languish in prison for years and years without recourse to justice,” explains Bilal Warraich, a solicitor in England and Wales and a human rights defender.

“Wajih-ul-Hassan and Asia Bibi are just two examples. There are hundreds of innocent citizens of Pakistan languishing in prisons, their cases pending without trial, lawyers running for cover for their own life since the cold-blooded murder of human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman. Previously the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard in uniform for demanding reform in the blasphemy laws.”

For the lawyer, "It is interesting to note that the sword of blasphemy does not [only] fall on minorities, but also on Muslims.” Most “cases are rooted in land, property, money and ‘honour’ related issues but are silver bulleted under blasphemy laws.

“As a lawyer and jurist, one would pertinently point out that these blasphemy laws are repugnant to the very spirit of the Constitutional equality enshrined in chapter 2 of the Constitution of Pakistan and article 10 A in particular.”

Hamza Arshad has no illusion. It "may be shocking for the civilized world, but in our country, it seems to be a routine, as our prisons are swarming with guiltless persons who are in the jails due to a pathetic justice system”.

Wajih ul Hassan’s “long and extremely painful incarnation once again reminds us how this blasphemy law is misused to persecute citizens. [. . .] One can only imagine, but the real horror felt by Wajih-ul-Hassan is hard to describe. What he felt under the impending shadow of a rope and his family, who underwent long and unending pangs, humiliation and threats from the community, is heartrending.”

Thanks to the Supreme Court, he was “exonerated him, [but] who will return him 18 long years of his life? Will he be able to spend a normal life among other human beings? Will the lawyer who got a FIR[*] registered against him be arrested and tried? Will society and state rethink the blasphemy law? The answer is NO.”

For this reason, “we feel for Mr Wajih’s family and beg forgiveness from them that state and society can do nothing to redeem them.”


[*]First information report.

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