On Saturday BBC Radio 4 broadcast a chilling programme called ‘Blasphemy and and the Governor of Punjab’. In the course of the reconstruction of events that led to the slaying in Pakistan of Salman Taseer, it was revealed that:
The Interior Minister even gave an impromptu press conference announcing that he too would kill any blasphemer ‘with his own hands’.
According the programme, which you can still hear online, a senior security chief echoed the Minister’s statement.
The programme also highlighted the efforts made by lawyer Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, above, to have a murder charge dropped against Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, on the grounds that he merely did “what any good Muslim would do to a blasphemer”.
Qadri, who was one of Taseer’s bodyguards, subsequently became a hero among millions of Muslims in both Pakistan and abroad, and, in the face of death threats the judge who handed down the sentence, Pervez Ali Shah, was sent to Saudi Arabia in 2011 for his own safety.
Qadri was hanged for the murder last month.
Taseer was slain by Qadri for his efforts to free an illiterate Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy and is still awaiting execution.
Taseer’s funeral, boycotted by his political colleagues, was delayed because no imam was prepared to conduct a burial service. But Qadri funeral was attended by thousands.
According to this report, much of the pressure to promote and prosecute blasphemy cases has come from “a surprising source” – Pakistan’s legal profession.
A group of highly educated lawyers known as “The Movement for the Finality of the Prophethood” has devoted itself to ensuring that as many cases as possible reach court and result in a guilty verdict.
The organisation claims to have 700 members in the province of Punjab alone, where hundreds of cases have been filed in recent years.
Lawyers from the group offer their services for free, and often pack courtrooms with clerics and supporters to ensure a guilty verdict. And rather than relying on arguments about evidence, the lawyers will frame the case as decision where the honor of Islam is at stake.
Said Mobeen Azhar, a BBC correspondent:
Since this particular group of lawyers got together, what we’ve seen is a mob mentality. You’ll often see court rooms filled with people who really want a conviction. It’s like theatre — you’ll hear jeering, you’ll hear threats. People get very, very emotional.
The group is led by Chaudhry, who has made his name prosecuting blasphemy cases and defending people who have murdered alleged blasphemers. According to Azhar, meeting Chaudhry is a memorable experience.
You walk into his plush office, and he’s quite presidential. He’s always got a cigar in his hand. He’s very polite, offers you tea and biscuits. And then you get down to business.
He said to me ‘there is only one punishment for blasphemy, and only one punishment for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and that is death. There is no alternative’.
Chaudhry’s defence of Qadri was based on the argument that the murder was justified because to question the blasphemy laws is in fact to commit blasphemy. His argument was formally rejected,
According to Azhar, there is little prospect of reform of the blasphemy laws given the current climate.
It will take a very brave set of people to move forward and even get that discussion going. There isn’t a critical mass.
In Pakistan, an accusation of blasphemy can prove fatal. The official legal punishment for defiling the name of the “Prophe”, even indirectly, is “death and nothing else”.
Even when a death sentence isn’t officially carried out, defendants are sometimes murdered or lynched by people who believe they are protecting Islam. Family members frequently have to go into hiding.