Junaid Hafeez: A victim of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws

Junaid Hafeez
Junaid Hafeez

Junaid Hafeez, a former visiting lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University, was awarded the death penalty by a court in the Central Jail in Multan on 21st December 2019. He was accused of blasphemy by conservative students widely believed to be part of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, a student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami. According to his father, Hafeez was the target of a smear campaign for holding liberal views.

Hafeez was arrested on 13th March 2013 for “making derogatory remarks about the Prophet in a Facebook book. He was charged with Section 295-C of the PPC and has been kept in solitary confinement since June 2014. His case has since been dragging.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are controversial for their extreme punishments. Section 295 codified in 186 aimed to protect the religious sentiments of India’s various religious communities.

In 1986, during the Islamization period of General Zia ul-Haq’s regime, 5 provisions were added, the controversial of which being Section 295-C which carries with it a death sentence for defiling the name of the Prophet.

Prior to 1986, only 10 reported judgments relating to offences against religion were filed, most of which were dismissed. However, this number ballooned to 1,472 in the period between 1987 and 2016.

Although no death penalties have been carried out against those accused and charged under the blasphemy provisions, vigilante justice and mob violence has resulted in at least 62 deaths till date. The victims often include the accused, such as in the case of Mashal Khan, a student of Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan who was lynched on campus premises by a fellow students over blasphemy allegations on 13th April 2017.

In others, supporters and family members are targeted. In the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sitting on death row for 9 years before her eventual acquittal in 2018, Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and the Governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer were both murdered for speaking in her defense.

This was also the matter in Hafeez’s case, where on May 7th, 2014, his lawyer, Rashid Rehman was gunned down in his office by unidentified men after a slew of threats to his life when he took up the lecturer’s case. Hafeez’s current lawyer, Asad Jamal, has also been harassed and threatened.

Currently 17 people charged under the blasphemy provisions are awaiting death row. Hafeez’s verdict possibly makes him the 18th, however Jamal has said that they will appeal the verdict in the high court.