Islamabad: It has been almost five years now that Junaid Hafeez, a brilliant foreign-scholarship holder teacher of Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU), languishes in jail for alleged blasphemy waiting for his trial in primary court to be concluded.
Living under-threat and miserable life in solitary confinement with no permission to meet anyone except his father (that too on particular days in a month), and sometimes his counsel, he is waiting for his fate to be decided by the trial court. Till now, during this period of trial that takes place in the jail premises for security reasons, this is fifth judge who has been transferred in routine while many hearings were adjourned for different reasons from both sides – the accused and complainant.
Multan police, southern Punjab, arrested Junaid on March 13, 2013 following the blasphemy accusation leveled by a right-wing student group—Junaid had differed with accused’s progressive views. He was booked for blasphemy law’s section 295C, which contains only death penalty as punishment. He was accused of liking an alleged objectionable post of someone on Facebook. His case is considered politically motivated by a well-entrenched Islamist student organization in the campus.
A year after the case, his first counsel, Rashid Rehman, was killed with one aide in his chamber for pleading his case in the court, while another aide got injured.
“The case is in its final stage of adjudication when only one prosecution witness is to be cross-examined followed by examination of the accused and final arguments,” the application moved by Junaid’s fathers and arguments made by his counsel Asad Jamal read. The application by them, moved to local judicial authorities, read that transferring the case to a different judge at this stage would further prolong proceedings for several months, submitting that if the case was to be adjudicated by previous presiding officer, Muhammad Abbas, it would likely be concluded in no more than a few weeks.” A recently changed judge has heard this case for seven months before he is transferred (apparently) in routine, to some other place in the same district.
That one important reason why the titled case has not been concluded even after almost five years since March 2013, is that the case has been transferred from one judge to another for seven times. In the past one year alone, it has gone from the hands of one Additional Sessions’ judge to another five times.
“The transfer of the case will not only result in the delay of its final resolution but will also surely cause a negative impact on the quality of adjudication as at this final stage a speedy proceeding by a new judge who is not familiar with the facts of the case and has not presided over recording of most crucial evidence in the past will most certainly result in unfair adjudication. Consequently, the transfer of the case from the previously hearing presiding officer is going cause irreparable harm to the defense of the accused,” Hafeez-ul- Naseer, father of the accused wrote the judicial authority pleading to resume the trial with previous judge.
Inmates accused of blasphemy are considered more vulnerable than prisoners on death-row because they are not even allowed to walk or breathe in fresh air within a jail. While, in many cases it is seen that their trial is lingered on without any solid reasons. Judicial authorities also pay less attention to these cases and direct the trial courts to conclude the cases at the earliest because of sensitivity involved in such cases.
“Blasphemy accusations in Pakistan itself is considered a conviction and the state has failed to derive any proper mechanism for hearing such sensitive cases,” Saroop Ijaz, human rights activist and lawyer said.
The decision is yet to be made (till the fling of this report) on his application.
In a similar case in Lahore, Walaiha Irafat, in late 20s, is also waiting for her primary trial to be concluded for the past six years. She was accused of desecrating copy of Holy Quran by her friend on March 3, 2012. During her trial nine judges have faced routine-transfer and case is pending because complainant allegedly is using delaying tactics and is ‘unable’ to produce main witnesses for several months. She was denied bail by local and higher court but managed it in Supreme Court in October 2015, three and a half years after spending in jail amid alleged harassment and security fears. Muhammad Amanulalh, activist who was helping her in the whole case and later she married to, is also facing difficult times for helping her and is allegedly threatened for by some Islamic groups and a group of lawyers in previous months.
In another such sensitive and globally highlighted case, a poor Christian woman, Asia Bibi, is in solitary confinement in jail. Her appeal against death penalty is pending before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. She was sentenced to death in 2010 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) following an argument with Muslim women in a village in Punjab. While, Lahore High Court confirms her death sentence rejecting her appeal in October 2014, her appeal is pending before Supreme Court of Pakistan and she is under serious threat in jail, as extremist Islamic-groups on the outside demand her execution.
“Given the security risks involved, a trial of such a nature ought not to have commenced in the district where it originated. If it still cannot be transferred to the provincial capital, the least our judicial authorities could do is to ensure that it is concluded as soon as possible. Anything that can delay proceedings must be avoided, including needless shifting of the case from one judicial officer to another, particularly when there is no absolute legal requirement for such a transfer at the moment,” prominent English daily wrote in its editorial on this situation.
Bail of Junaid was moved only once, which was rejected. No further effort has been made to get bail after that to reduce his plight in the prison. Lawyer and Human Rights Defender Saroop Ijaz said, “The unending ordeal of the accused in blasphemy cases is a scathing indictment of the country’s criminal justice system. The cases are delayed indefinitely because of the insecurity felt by judges, witnesses and investigators. No judge wants to adjudicate the case on merits since there is no guarantee of protection.”