Dawn: How badly will the murder of Rashid Rehman — the latest in a series of attacks on human rights activists and especially those involved in defending blasphemy accused — have a chilling effect on activism as a whole?
The murder of Rashid is a message for lawyers to be selective about the cases they take up. Defending anyone accused of blasphemy will not be allowed by Islamist militants, who kill with impunity. His murder followed the same pattern that groups who kill with impunity follow. First you kill and then you threaten anyone else who may follow the same path. Pamphlets were distributed in the Multan Bar Association, warning that anyone who takes up the defence in cases of blasphemy will meet the same fate. It is highly demoralising for human rights activists who are always at risk and the government takes threats against them lightly.
There is the oft-repeated mantra of whenever such an attack takes place, that this will not dampen the struggle for human rights and justice. Do you think this is still true?
Space for human rights work is shrinking by the day. This incident will discourage young activists and blasphemy accused will not get any legal counsel at all. In any case, there is always reluctance to join the human rights movement as those believing in liberal values have always been at the receiving end in this country despite the fact that the position they took vindicated them. For example, when liberal Pakistanis expressed the desire to end hostilities with India and Afghanistan they were dubbed as traitors. Now all major political parties are taking the same position. Other examples are the Hadood laws, honour killings, separate electorates, minority rights, Balochistan. It was the liberal activists who warned that the killing of Akbar Bugti would add fuel to the insurgency and that blasphemy laws will be massively misused, to name just two such examples.
The track record of the courts in providing a fair trial to those accused of blasphemy has been, in a word, abysmal. Do you ever see this changing?
One should not expect a fair trial. After all, the bail for someone accused of blasphemy, who is proven to be mentally challenged and of an advanced age could only be secured at the supreme court level! Our courts in effect allow mobs of ultra right-wing lawyers and mullahs to fill the court room, and these mobs then proceed to terrify lawyers, witnesses and even judges. This should be stopped. Also the government has so far not been able to arrest the killers of Rashid or the attackers of Hamid Mir. It has failed to protect the lives of its citizens. In a country where members of banned organisations and known terrorists are encouraged to hold rallies in favour of the country’s armed forces how can anyone be safe? It is a brazen defiance of people’s security and of state security.