Thursday, December 9, 2021

Pakistani lawyer who stands up for ‘blasphemers’ says he faces threats to his life

Blasphemy is a deeply emotive topic in Muslim-majority Pakistan and is legally punishable by death.

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The Pakistani lawyer who successfully overturned a number of convictions for blasphemy has said he believes his life is in danger.

He most recently oversaw the acquittal of a Christian couple who had been sentenced to death.

Saiful Malook shared social media posts with the BBC which called for him to be “executed” for securing the acquittal.

Blasphemy is a deeply emotive topic in Muslim-majority Pakistan and is legally punishable by death. While no one has ever been executed for the offence, dozens of people accused of it have been killed by vigilantes and enraged mobs.

Human rights groups say the country’s blasphemy laws often unfairly target religious minorities and can be used in personal feuds.

Earlier this month, the high court in Lahore quashed the convictions of Christian couple Shagufta Kausar and her husband Shafqat Emmanuel, citing a lack of evidence.

The pair had been sentenced to death in 2014 for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages insulting the Prophet Muhammad, though they insisted they were innocent.

Kausar’s brother told the BBC last year he doubted the couple were literate enough even to have written the messages.

The couple’s lawyer, Malook, previously also represented Asia Bibi, a Christian villager who spent eight years on death row in a case that attracted international condemnation.

Bibi was eventually acquitted by Pakistan’s supreme court in 2018 and subsequently flown out of the country to safety. The legal ruling led to large, violent protests.

“I am feeling really good here because I am in my home and with my kids,” Bibi said in Urdu during her first interview with Canadian media after moving there in 2020. Global News agreed to keep her location secret as she believes there are still many people who wish to see her dead.

Malook, who is the most prominent lawyer defending blasphemy cases in Pakistan, told the BBC that he considered the current threats against him the “most dangerous” he has ever received.

“Even this was not done during Asia Bibi’s case,” he said. “Now they think I am the only hurdle in their way.”

He criticised the government for not providing him with adequate security. “Not even a clerk from the Pakistani government has contacted me,” he said.

It is not clear how serious the specific threats are to Malook, but in 2014 a lawyer representing another blasphemy defendant was murdered. Rashid Rehman was sitting in his office when he was shot dead.

Blasphemy convictions in Pakistan by lower courts are often overturned on appeal. Human rights activists say more junior judges are often intimidated into convicting suspects despite flaws in the prosecution cases.

Hearings at Lahore High Court in the case of Kausar, a caretaker at a Christian school, and her paralysed husband Emmanuel, had been repeatedly delayed.

Malook suggested the judges were concerned at the possibility of being targeted themselves if they acquitted the pair.

In April, however, the European Parliament passed a resolution urging Pakistan to reform its blasphemy laws, citing concerns over the Kausar-Emmanuel case in particular.

Malook told the BBC that had the case had not been highlighted internationally, he feared the appeal would’ve been delayed indefinitely.

Pakistani officials did not reply to a BBC request for comment.

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