July 3, 2022
By Rehan Piracha and Ahmed Saeed, with inputs from Kamran Ali
Mary* has been living in hiding since her acquittal from a blasphemy case in 2012. She stepped out of jail with the hope of starting but little did she know that life is not going to be normal again.
In the 10-year period Mary, Christian by faith and Pakistani by nationality, has had to shift more than 20 houses to avoid a violent situation. The mob is still out and unwilling to forgive her despite a not-guilty court order in her favour. She once contemplated taking her life and that of her children but was dissuaded at the last moment by her late husband and relatives. “I asked them what could I do when we were slowly being starved to death,” Mary says in a talk with Voicepk.net.
The circumstances have remained the same for Mary till this day. “If the government had helped me get my house back or given us a home, only then I could say justice had been done,” she laments.
Not only Mary, but many others from among the acquitted blasphemy accused find themselves persecuted for life by society. There’s no reversal for those who has been accused of blasphemy. Mary’s family was forced to flee from their house in a Kasur village following the registration of blasphemy case against her and her husband. “They told us that if we came back they will kill us and if they saw any of our children around they will kill them too,” she says quoting threats they had received from the members of the influential family that filed the blasphemy case. A quarrel between the children from the two families was said to be at the base of the angry blasphemy accusation.
About 10 poor Christian families living there also left their homes in the village. “Now only the pastor and another Christian family, who have some influence, live there now,” she says.
Lately, there’s a tendency to increasingly invoke blasphemy sections of the PPC. Those who booked under these charges can say how drastically it changes their lives forever. It is like going through an endless inquisition for the rest of their lives.
Mary says one of her landlords told the family to vacate the house, intrigued by the fact that too many media persons came visiting. “Your are not rich then why these media people were visiting you,” she quotes the landlord. The landlord and neighbours then began questioning whether she had hidden her true identity. “I have changed rented residences about twenty-times since my release,” Mary reveals, adding that she switched residences for the safety of her young daughters living with her.
The mother of six children now runs a beauty salon in a rented house, concealing her identity and faith in order not to arouse any suspicion.
Rights organisations have pointed out members from minority religious communities are unproportionately targeted under the blasphemy laws. According to Centre for Social Justice, out of the 84 blasphemy cases reported in the country in 2021, nearly half of them were filed against members of the Ahmedi, Christian and Hindu minority communities.
Reminiscent of the European inquisitions of the middle ages, the sword of blasphemy accusations has led to killings of individuals ranging from a sitting governor to former judges and lawyers. Even children have been arrested and sent to jail to await prolonged trials.
In September 2020, a 13-year-old boy was arrested in Lahore after a neighbour lodged a complaint that he had caught the boy desecrating the Holy Quran. The boy’s father, a 50-year-old a rickshaw driver with a heart disease, says he faced great difficulty finding a lawyer to the fight the blasphemy case. A lawyer that initially took up the case for Rs 50,000 fee quit when the complainants threatened him.
The boy’s father says he loaned money from acquaintances as well as sold off the jewellery of her eldest to engage a lawyer in the blasphemy case. “I gave Rs 50,000 to the lawyer who promised that he would get my son out on bail,” the boy’s father tells Voicepk.net.
However, the lawyer quit the case when the complainant confronted my lawyer by showing him an alleged video of the desecration during a bail hearing at the sessions court in Lahore. “There was nothing in the video to show my son was committing desecration of any sort,” he adds.
The boy’s father says even the judge found nothing in the video to support the blasphemy allegations when the video was played in the courtroom.
He says the case has dragged on for over one and a half years and there were was a faction of lawyers backed by a religious outfit that is pressuring judges not to hear blasphemy cases, leading to several adjournments in his son’s case. “In the previous hearings, three to four lawyers from a religious outfit came to the court and the judge was forced to adjourn the case for two to three times,” he says.
“I don’t know why they were telling the judge not to hear blasphemy cases and wanted the judge to put off hearings for a prolonged time.”
He claims that people accused in blasphemy are going insane in jail as no regular hearings are being held in such cases which often see numerous adjournments. “Whenever, I visit my son in jail, he cries and begs me to get him out of there. I tell him I don’t have enough money to get him released.”
Hearing of the blasphemy case neither the boy’s parents or other relatives visited the police station where the boy was kept, fearing that they may also be implicated in the case.
In 2020 alone, 559 cases of blasphemy were registered in Punjab province only.
Threats and fears of stigmitisation and ostracisation have lead to only a handful of lawyers coming forward to plead cases of accused in blasphemy cases in Pakistan.
Shaukat Ghulam, a Peshawar-based lawyer represented Tahir Naseem in a blasphemy case. Minutes after Naseem was shot dead in a Peshawar courtroom, Ghulam says his junior associate in the case, received a threatening call on his cell phone, warning them that they are on their hit list following their client’s grisly assassination.
“When the murder happened, senior representatives of the bar council and high court bar called me for a meeting in which they told me to immediately step aside from the case it being a sensitive matter.” Talking of threats, he says his junior associate received a call 10 to 15 minutes after the shooting in court. “The caller said they had knocked off their client and now they were the next target,” he reveals.
Following his client’s murder, Ghulam says went into hiding for about two years.
Saif ul Muluk, a lawyer who represented Asia Bibi, a death row blasphemy convict acquitted by Supreme Court in 2018, has had to pay a price for taking such cases.
According to Saif ul Muluk, a great majority of lawyers hate him for defending blasphemy accused, refusing to speak or shake hands with him. He says since he is the lawyer of the one “accused of blasphemy so in their eyes I’m also a blasphemer.”