Rashid Rehman Khan, a coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), was shot dead by two gunmen who burst into his office in the city of Multan in Punjab province. Police said a second lawyer and a client were injured.
Just a month ago, HRCP in a statement expressed grave concerns about Khan’s safety, after he was threatened by a group of men inside a Multan courtroom where he appeared for a university lecturer, Junaid Hafeez, who is facing charges under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws.
A lawyer was reportedly among those who made the threats – in the presence of a judge – which according to HRCP amounted to the men telling Khan, “You will not come to court next time because you will not exist anymore.”
“HRCP demands that the three persons who threatened the lawyer in the case are proceeded against under the law without delay and effective measures are taken to ensure the defense lawyer’s security,” commission chair Zohra Yusuf said at the time.
Attempts to reach the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan early Thursday were unsuccessful.
Khan’s death came a week after the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom repeated a recommendation that the State Department designate Pakistan a “country of particular concern” under U.S. law.
Governments that perpetrate or condone religious persecution can face sanctions or other measures designed to encourage improvements.
The USCIRF, an independent statutory watchdog, has made the recommendation for Pakistan’s blacklisting every year since 2002, but the Obama State Department, like its predecessor, has chosen not to do so. Pakistan is a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws provide for the death penalty for anyone convicted of defiling “the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed” and up to life imprisonment for anyone found guilty of defiling the Qur’an.
Hafeez, a visiting lecturer in English at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University, was arrested and charged with blasphemy in March last year, after radicals held a rally calling for his execution. News reports at the time said they accused him of posting “blasphemous” comments on his Facebook page.
People accused of blasphemy often have difficulties getting legal representation as lawyers fear reprisals, and Hafeez struggled for months to find someone to take his case before Khan stepped in. (Police officers, lawyers and judges have been attacked by angry Muslims in some cases. Several years ago a High Court judge in Lahore was shot to death in his chambers after acquitting a man who had been convicted of blasphemy by a lower court.)
Human rights researchers say the laws have been a key root cause of violence against Christians in the country, and that religious minorities are disproportionately targeted. Around half of those charged under the laws since 1988 have been non-Muslims, even though they make up just two percent of the population.
Critics say the laws are also often used to settle scores; even in the absence of evidence, the mere allegation of blasphemy can land a person in custody – or put his or her life at risk.
The USCIRF said last week it is aware of 17 Pakistanis currently on death row for blasphemy, and 19 serving life prison terms.
‘Honor of the prophet’
In 2010 a Christian farm laborer and mother in Punjab named Asia Bibi was accused of insulting Mohammed, and upon conviction became the first woman to be handed the death penalty for blasphemy.
After Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer – a liberal Muslim – took up Bibi’s case he was shot dead by a member of his bodyguard. The killer, who said he had killed Taseer because of his criticism of the blasphemy laws, was hailed as a hero.
Hundreds of lawyers offering the assassin free representation, and some 500 Muslim scholars issued a statement giving him the honorary title “Lover of the Prophet, Commander of the Jihad Fighters.”
Two months after Taseer’s assassination Pakistan’s federal minorities affairs minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was gunned down in Islamabad by unknown assailants, who left pamphlets accusing him of blasphemy because of his opposition to the laws.
Pakistan’s extremist elements, including supporters and members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the al-Qaeda-linked Laskhar-e-Toiba, are well known. But its most prominent blasphemy law supporters are mainstream Sunni “Barelvis.”
Sometimes viewed in the West as moderates because they oppose al-Qaeda, Barelvis hold extreme views regarding shari’a and blasphemy.
A grouping of Barelvi parties known as Tehreek Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat (“The movement to protect the honor of the prophet”) led the protests against Hafeez, the university lecturer who was being represented by the lawyer killed on Wednesday.