27th August 2022
LAHORE: United Nation experts have called on Pakistan to halt confirmation of death sentence to blasphemy convict Junaid Hafeez and order a retrial over concerns raised about the independence and fairness of the judicial process.
In a communication to the government on June 22, the UN experts also regretted that the government had not yet responded to concerns expressed in their previous communication over the killing of Junaid Hafeez’ counsel, who had reportedly received death threats for defending him.
The communication was written on behalf of Morris Tidball-Binz, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Mumba Malila, Vice-Chair of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; Irene Khan Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Diego García-Sayán Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers; Fernand de Varennes Special Rapporteur on minority issues, and Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
The UN rapporteurs expressed their grave concern about the imposition of the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy related charges against Junaid Hafeez, acts which do not qualify as “most serious crimes,” and after alleged arbitrary detention and prolonged solitary confinement, which reportedly contributed to the deterioration of his mental and physical health condition.
Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, was arrested in March 2013 and charged under sections 295-A,-B and-C of the Pakistan Penal Code for allegedly making blasphemous remarks during his lectures and on his Facebook account. A trial court had imposed death penalty on Junaid Hafeez in December 2019 despite concerns raised about the independence and fairness of the judicial process.
In March 2022, his appeal case file was forwarded to the principal seat of the Lahore High Court in Lahore from the Multan bench reportedly after several adjournments. “The delay in scheduling Mr. Hafeez’s appeal for a hearing is said to be due to the reluctance of judges to deal with high-profile blasphemy cases such as Mr. Hafeez’s,” the communication quoted information received about Junaid Hafeez’s case.
According to allegations sent to the UN rapporteurs, Hafeez was not given access to legal counsel throughout his interrogation, during which he was allegedly subjected to ill-treatment. Nor was he assigned a government-appointed lawyer in the period before his legal counsel took over his case in November 2013. He was held in pre-trial detention until the start of his trial in June 2014.
In the course of his legal proceedings, his case was referred to at least seven judges in the Multan courts. While the legal proceedings were delayed several times, the prosecution reportedly failed to present conclusive evidence of Hafeez’s guilt. Evidence from the initial forensic investigation, based on a Facebook post allegedly written by Mr. Hafeez, uncovered metadata suggesting that the post was written after Hafeez’s arrest while his electronic devices were reportedly in the sole custody of law enforcement officials. “These practices raised serious doubts about the merits of the case and the independence of the judiciary in Hafeez’s case,” the communication said.
The UN rapporteurs expressed concerns that Hafeez had been arbitrarily detained on charges that cast reasonable doubt on the merits of the case, and that no conclusive evidence had allegedly been presented to prove his guilt. “We reiterate our concern about the application of the blasphemy law against persons lawfully exercising their right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and expression, which would amount to the judicial persecution of individuals on religious grounds.”
The UN experts expressed alarm at growing misuse of blasphemy laws in Pakistan. “Our concerns in this regard would be heightened by what appears to be a growing trend to misuse legal provisions relating to blasphemy for personal or political reasons.”
UN rapporteurs also said they were particularly concerned that the independence of the judges and lawyers handling Hafeez’s case and the fair trial proceedings in the case may be compromised by undue pressure and threats of violence.
“Under these circumstances, we respectfully call on your Excellency’s Government to halt all steps currently being considered or taken with respect to the further confirmation of the death penalty in the case of Mr. Junaid Hafeez, to fully investigate the allegations raised in this communication, and to ensure that he is retried in accordance with fair trial and due process standards enshrined in international law,” the UN rapporteurs said.
The UN experts called on Pakistan to consider reinstating an official moratorium on all executions as a further step towards fully abolishing the death penalty in the country.
The UN rapporteurs also sought detailed information on Hafeez’s current conditions of detention, including information on his mental and physical health condition. They also asked the government to provide details and the results of any judicial or other investigation conducted in connection with the killing of Hafeez’s counsel in 2014.