A brutal blasphemy verdict
After six years in solitary confinement in Multan, Pakistan, Junaid Hafeez – a 33-year-old Fulbright scholar and lecturer – was handed a death sentence in December 2019 for allegedly ‘defiling’ the name of Prophet Muhammad.
Junaid’s father, Hafeez-ul Naseer, attributes the blasphemy charges to opposition his son faced from Islamist clerics over his progressive teachings while lecturing in the English department at Bahauddin Zakariya University in 2011.
The clerics led a campaign to expel and replace Junaid at the university; their tactics included a strike and distributing pamphlets calling for his expulsion and hanging. Junaid’s housing and teaching contracts were later withdrawn, and the campaign culminated in his arrest for allegedly posting blasphemous content on social media.
Few lawyers in Pakistan will agree to represent blasphemy defendants because of the threats posed to their lives by the religious right. After his first lawyer quit, the second to represent Junaid, Rashid Rehman, told the BBC that representing a blasphemy defendant is like ‘walking into the jaws of death’. Rehman was shot and killed in his chambers in 2014 after being threatened openly in court for representing Junaid.
Under Pakistan’s penal code, any mention or repetition of blasphemous content itself constitutes blasphemy. This means that in court, the purported evidence for Junaid’s guilt cannot be discussed and examined effectively. After the death sentence was announced, prosecution lawyers handed out sweets, celebrating the decision as a religious triumph.
Back in 2010, Junaid was optimistic about his teaching prospects in Pakistan. Fresh from a stint as a Fulbright scholar in Jackson, Mississippi – where he studied English and Theatre – he gave an interview to a local radio station in Multan.
He explained modestly why he chose to return to his home in Rajanpur district to take up a lecturing post: ‘I had an urge to do something socially useful in Pakistan, something that hadn’t been done before.’ Junaid had earlier quit graduate medicine to pursue literature. ‘Through poetry, you can escape,’ he said. ‘You can see a different vision for the world.’
Amnesty International has condemned the death sentence and called for his immediate release, adding that ‘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’.
Junaid is not the first to be targeted in this way. Accusations of blasphemy are frequently used to settle scores or to target religious minorities and progressive Muslims. Meanwhile, lawyers actively tout for business, offering to represent blasphemy claimants on a no-win no-fee basis.
Last year a Christian rural labourer, Asia Bibi, was acquitted of blasphemy charges by the Supreme Court after spending 10 years on death row. Riots followed her acquittal, forcing her and her family to move between multiple safe houses and to ultimately be granted asylum in Canada. Her lawyer also sought safety abroad.
Though there has yet to be an execution for blasphemy, Junaid is one of 40 people convicted of this charge currently waiting on death row.