Zaibunnisa was jailed in 1996 on blasphemy charges when Qari Hafeez, a cleric from Lahore, complained to the police that he had found torn pages of the Quran thrown in a drain. A medical board declared her mentally ill soon after her arrest, but she was still incarcerated. It was only in July 2010, 14 years after she was first sent behind bars, that the Lahore High Court ordered her release, but not on medical grounds. Her lawyer had convinced the court that there was no evidence linking her to the crime. After she was freed, Hafeez told the media that he had not named her as an offender and a police official reportedly told journalists that she had been arrested to defuse tension that had developed in the area over the defiling of the Quran.
That an innocent, mentally-challenged woman had to spend nearly a decade and a half in prison because the police made her a scapegoat is as much a comment on the ideological biases of judges, lawyers and law-enforcement agencies as it is a description of the multiple pressures they face in blasphemy cases. In almost all these cases, trial courts are either unwilling to give the accused the benefit of the doubt or are under pressure to dispense strict punishment even when, as in Zaibunnisa’s trial, evidence is not solid and incriminating.
Senior Supreme Court lawyer Abid Hassan Minto tells the Herald that hers is not an isolated case. “Many blasphemy cases go on for years,” he says. “Sometimes even bail applications are not taken up because judges and prosecution lawyers use delaying tactics to keep the accused in jail as long as they possibly can without his or her trial reaching a conclusion.” Naeem Shakir, a senior lawyer based in Lahore who has served as defence counsel in dozens of blasphemy cases, says the prosecution and even judges do not really want those accused of blasphemy to get justice. “Short of awarding the death penalty instantly, both lawyers and judges want to prolong the agony of the accused to the maximum,” he says.
The case of Wajihul Hasan, booked under blasphemy charges in 1999, tells a similar story. He could not get bail because the complainant, Lahore-based lawyer Ismail Qureshi, who is known for his extreme religious views, wields considerable influence in both the bench and the bar. A trial court awarded Hasan the death penalty in 2002, but no judgment was made on his appeal to the Lahore High Court (LHC) until 2010. It came as no surprise that Justice Ijaz Ahmed Chaudhry, the recently appointed LHC chief justice, upheld Hasan’s sentence and in his verdict praised Qureshi for his services to Islam and the cause of the honour of the Prophet of Islam. An appeal is now pending in the Supreme Court.
Aside from verdicts influenced by personal ideologies or external pressure, Shakir says blasphemy accused and their lawyers also face an extremely hostile situation within and outside courtrooms. “When I was defending Salamat Masih in a Gujranwala sessions court (see “Law Unto Themselves”) the entire passage from the court’s main gate to the door of the courtroom would be full of people carrying placards and banners demanding death for my client and raising incessant slogans against him as well as me.” At one stage, he says, the atmosphere became so aggressive that they had to ask the high court to shift the trial from Gujranwala to Lahore.
But Shakir says the situation is hardly different in Lahore. “During one hearing the prosecution produced some evidence, and when I wanted to see it the crowd in the courtroom made so much noise that the judge stopped me from taking notes on it and took it back from me,” he says. According to him, this was a clear violation of legal procedures that stipulate that no framing of charges can be complete unless the accused and his counsel hear all the charges and see the entire body of evidence. Shakir also claims that he and his family faced threats to their lives while he was working as defence counsel for another blasphemy accused, Gul Masih. “I became so scared for my son that I made it a point that he never went out unaccompanied.”
Apart from being under pressure due to this hostile environment, judges have also been swayed by their religious bias while deciding blasphemy cases. In two cases filed under the same subsection of the blasphemy laws, a court applied different yardsticks for a Muslim and a Christian. In 2008, Khwaja Sharif, the outgoing LHC chief justice, did not quash a case against a Christian woman, Martha Bibi, even after her counsel cited an earlier decision in which the same judge had quashed a case against one Qari Mohammad Yunus on the grounds, among others, that the complaint was not registered with the permission of the government, even though 295-C cases do not carry this requirement (see “What the Law Says”).