PAKISTAN: Fear in the courts delays justice for Christians

Justice Qasim Khan, Chief Justice of Lahore High Court, has said that despite Covid-19 and a shortage of lawyers, the LHC disposed of 28,000 cases across Punjab province during the last five months.

While addressing the district bar association on 18 September, he said that it was vital to urgently speed up the pace of work and he sought judges and lawyers’ cooperation in this regard, adding that “we are here to resolve complainants’ problems”.

However, there is one notable exception to the drive to expedite cases – blasphemy law cases.

Ashfaq Masih

On 27 August in Lahore High Court, a judge failed to turn up for a scheduled hearing in the case of Ashfaq Masih and the hearing was adjourned yet again. No reason was given for the non-appearance of the judge. Ashfaq has been in prison since 2017 accused of blasphemy and several court hearings have previously been cancelled.

Adjournment of court hearings – whether to hear cases or to hear appeals – is the usual outcome in blasphemy law cases. One experienced observer and Church in Chains contact said this month, “This happens in blasphemy cases because judges want to avoid any controversy  and any unseen issues from extremist groups.” It is not unusual in blasphemy law court hearings for the court room to be packed with loud protesters from Islamist groups chanting for death to the accused and also issuing threats against lawyers, court officials and judges.

The case of Imran Ghafur Masih is the one that has seen the most adjournments – it is estimated that at least seventy appeal hearings have been postponed since he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2010. In the middle of September, his case was adjourned yet again – this time to 16 October. Such almost routine adjournments are extremely demoralising for prisoners such as Imran, who has now spent eleven years in prison.

Zafar Bhatti

Zafar Bhattis appeal against a sentence of life imprisonment has been adjourned at least seventeen times and the continual cycle of anticipation of release (as lawyers prepare for an appeal and perhaps pass on encouraging details of a judge’s comments about the strength of the evidence in his case) and crushing disappointment (when the case is adjourned again) has taken its toll on Zafar’s physical and mental health. Among the many reasons for adjournments in Zafar’s case have been a judge failing to turn up, a judge going on holiday, a judge transferring the case to another court, a lawyer failing to appear and a lawyer appealing for additional time to gather evidence. It is difficult not to conclude that judges are simply afraid to rule in his case.

Zafar suffered a heart attack in prison on 3 September. He received swift medical attention to stabilise his condition but his lawyers called on Lahore High Court to grant immediate bail on medical grounds. Following a brief hearing at Lahore High Court on 10 September, the local police superintendent was instructed to commission a medical report. However, Zafar remains in prison, where he has been since July 2012.

Injustice highlighted

Many international reports have highlighted the injustice faced by most people accused under the laws, which disproportionately affect religious minorities, ranging from the acceptance of accusations based on flimsy, if any, evidence to the presumption of guilt, lack of a fair trial and including the inordinate delay for justice. The experience of most prisoners is that the Supreme Court is the only court likely to deliver justice in such cases because of the greater level of security given to Supreme Court judges.

Asia Bibi (the most famous blasphemy law prisoner) was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court in October 2018. However, her acquittal led to three days of violent protests across Pakistan by Islamist extremists which only ended when the Pakistani government agreed to their demands that she not be allowed leave the country. Asia was not permitted to leave the country for another six months.

The outlook for any change in the situation remains bleak as any calls for reform of the blasphemy laws have been met with hostility in Pakistan and the current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, seems reluctant to promote change for fear of offending Islamist parties. International concern about the laws and their effects on religious minorities has been expressed consistently by the United States and the European Union but neither the US nor the EU has insisted on change to be part of the renewal of trade deals.

(Aid to the Church in Need, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, UrduPoint)

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