700-strong lawyers' alliance remains defiant after Qadri's execution

Published: March 7, 2016
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Leader of the Khatm-e-Nubuwwat Lawyers' Forum, a conservative alliance of lawyers offering free legal advice for anyone filing a blasphemy case, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry poses for a portrait at his office in Lahore, Pakistan, February 22, 2016.  PHOTO: REUTERS

Leader of the Khatm-e-Nubuwwat Lawyers' Forum, a conservative alliance of lawyers offering free legal advice for anyone filing a blasphemy case, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry poses for a portrait at his office in Lahore, Pakistan, February 22, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

A little-known alliance of hundreds of lawyers in Pakistan is behind the rise in prosecutions for blasphemy, a crime punishable by death that goes to the heart of an ideological clash between reformers and religious conservatives.

The group, whose name translates as The Movement for the Finality of the Prophethood, offers free legal advice to complainants and has packed courtrooms with representatives, a tactic critics say is designed to help it gain convictions.

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The stated mission of the Khatm-e-Nubuwwat Lawyers’ Forum and its leader Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry is uncompromising: to use its expertise and influence to ensure that anyone insulting Islam or  Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is charged, tried and executed.

“Whoever does this (blasphemy), the punishment is only death. There is no alternative,” Chaudhry told supporters crammed into his small office behind the towering red-brick High Court building in the eastern city of Lahore.

The campaign could complicate the government’s tentative efforts to reform blasphemy legislation, a tough task in a country where support for the law is widespread.

Chaudhry was the defence lawyer for Mumtaz Qadri, executed on Monday for gunning down the popular governor of Punjab province in 2011 over his criticism of the blasphemy law.

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Chaudhry argued, ultimately unsuccessfully, that the bodyguard was justified in killing Salman Taseer, because he committed blasphemy by publicly questioning the law.

In death, Qadri was a hero for many. Tens of thousands of people gathered in a park in the city of Rawalpindi for his funeral on Tuesday, showering his casket with flowers. “He lives! Qadri lives!” supporters around the coffin cried. “From your blood, the revolution will come!”

Leader of the Khatm-e-Nubuwwat Lawyers’ Forum, a conservative alliance of lawyers offering free legal advice for anyone filing a blasphemy case, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry poses for a portrait at his office in Lahore, Pakistan, February 22, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Even discussing blasphemy is a challenge in Pakistan, and officials and activists say accusations can be used by complainants to settle personal scores and intimidate liberal journalists, lawyers and politicians.

At the same time, authorities are seeking to reduce room for abuse by insisting senior police officers are involved in cases and ruling that criticising the law does not constitute blasphemy itself.

Qadri’s execution was seen as a sign itself that the government was determined to take firmer action, and it coincides with a nationwide crackdown by the powerful military on militants and their religious allies.

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Jails filling up

Since Khatm-e-Nubuwwat was founded 15 years ago, the number of criminal blasphemy cases filed in Punjab, the group’s home base and Pakistan’s most populous province, had tripled to 336 by 2014, according to police figures.

It fell to 210 in 2015 as stricter provincial rules were applied, but critics said the number was still too high. Chaudhry told Reuters he had personally been involved in more than 50 criminal blasphemy cases, and said his group had grown to 700 lawyers in Punjab, where the majority of blasphemy cases are heard.

“If they hear of a complaint, the lawyers will come to the person and offer to take the case for free,” said a policeman, who asked not to be named to avoid reprisals. “Sometimes they arrive with people and encourage them to make a complaint.”

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Chaudhry said his group represented almost every complainant in cases across Punjab. Reuters could not independently confirm this. Reuters was also unable to determine if the movement has funding or any other form of backing from a specific group or groups, but Chaudhry said its motivation was not financial.

“Everyone knows that we are the forum that does these cases voluntarily,” he told Reuters. “So they contact us and tell us that there is a case to do.” He said member lawyers investigated cases to ensure they were genuine, although they had not found an unjustified blasphemy complaint yet.

The law dates back to colonial times, but was rarely implemented until about 20 years ago. It states that anyone found to have defiled the name of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in writing or speech, including by “innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly”, should be punished with life imprisonment or death.

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In 1990, that was strengthened to “death and nothing else”.

No one in Pakistan has been executed for blasphemy so far, but jails are filling up with those sentenced to death, and there have been sporadic assassinations of the accused and people involved in their defence. At least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to figures from a Center for Research and Security Studies report and local media.

Some recent blasphemy cases made headlines around the world, including that of Christian woman Aasia Bibi, whose conviction drew international attention including from the Pope. Her case was prosecuted by the Khatm-e-Nubuwwat.

Reema Omer, legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, an advocacy group of lawyers and judges, said the rise in blasphemy cases was deepening fears of speaking out. “After the launch of our report (into blasphemy legislation), we were told by hosts of TV talk shows that they have been cautioned against ‘going too far’ in their critique of the blasphemy law, especially after recent cases of blasphemy allegations against anchor persons and media houses,” she said.

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Crowds at court

Chaudhry and his colleagues sometimes arrive in court with dozens of lawyers and supporters, say defence attorneys. “Their conduct in these cases is … intimidatory, 100 per cent,” said defence lawyer Saif-ul-Malook, who said he had defended blasphemy cases in courtrooms full of supporters of the forum.

In one case, a crowd of lawyers left him barely any space to stand and shouted slogans when he spoke to the judge to present his case.

Chaudhry denied the accusations, saying that he was the victim of intimidation by human rights groups, though he did not elaborate.

“We have never had any complaints,” he said. Family members of some blasphemy defendants disagreed. “From our side there would be one or two lawyers, but from their side there were eight or nine lawyers, 10 or 12 clerics,” said Muhammed Aman Ullah Khan, whose wife is being prosecuted for blasphemy by a complainant whose team of lawyers is led by Chaudhry.

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“They said it in exactly these words: ‘If you want to be shot, then sit behind her [in court]. And if you don’t want to be shot, then may you never be seen here again.'” Chaudhry denied the accusation.

“This has never happened. We respect the families (of the accused).” That case is being heard at the Lahore High Court.

Changes opposed

Last year, Punjab passed laws requiring blasphemy accusations to be investigated by a senior police officer. But some police sources said some senior officers were reluctant to be drawn into cases, and many were still being handled by more junior staff.

“People become so emotional when blasphemy is mentioned that they want to take justice into their own hands,” said Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah Khan.

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He said some blasphemy accusations were made for ulterior motives, including the theft of land from religious minorities in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country of 190 million.

“The matter is often exploited … You cannot say that this (law) is exploited all the time, but it is very common,” he told Reuters. Also last year, the Supreme Court ruled that criticism of the law did not constitute blasphemy.

In January, one of the country’s most senior clerics told Reuters that he may be willing to review the law. However, Khatm-e-Nubuwwat’s leaders oppose change, saying it could encourage violence.

“If, God forbid, this law is finished,” said forum secretary general Tahir Sultan Khokhar, “then obviously people have been given the right to decide with their own hands, to kill.”

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Mansoor
    Mar 7, 2016 - 1:40PM

    How Islam survived without Pakistani blasphemy laws is a mystery to me. This pillar of Islam is the source of strength and Muslims all over the world are envious of our contribution. I can only praise the law colleges who churned out these imbiciles but am ashamed that our management schools are not giving modules how to use (read abuse) Islam as business.Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Mar 7, 2016 - 1:54PM

    Instead of pursuing some sort of Spanish Inquisition, why don’t these people just focus on all the backlogged cases piling on their desks !Recommend

  • Hameed
    Mar 7, 2016 - 2:56PM

    Khatm-e-Nubuwwat

    Has anything good ever come out of this group?Recommend

  • saleem
    Mar 7, 2016 - 4:13PM

    I would like to file a citizens litigation to arrest and punish this whole group of terrorists Recommend

  • Tariq Kamal
    Mar 7, 2016 - 4:15PM

    I think the solution to this problem is that this law should be extended to religious figures belonging to minorities too. If someone insults Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh or Ahmadi religious figures, they should be sentenced to death too. This is the only way to make these people understand the consequences of their actions.Recommend

  • Milind
    Mar 7, 2016 - 4:25PM

    Pakistan needs a Bangladesh or Egypt style leadership to crush this Muslim Brotherhood kind of regressive trend.Recommend

  • bajwa
    Mar 7, 2016 - 6:38PM

    Are they lawyers or liars?Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Mar 7, 2016 - 6:55PM

    Pakistan needs an Attaturk to purge the country of this nonsense.Recommend

  • curious2
    Mar 7, 2016 - 8:02PM

    These the same thugs that attack/intimidate the judges? In the West most of these guys would have been disbarred long ago.Recommend

  • echoboom
    Mar 7, 2016 - 8:50PM

    The movement to expose and pursue liberaloons, secularoons, and murtadoons seems to be heating up. Westoxication must be weeded out and uprooted from Islamic Pakistan.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers
    Mar 7, 2016 - 9:00PM

    Lawyers of the non-Muslim world should band together and make sure that anyone who insults any one of the many non-Muslim religions and/or prophets is charged, tried and executed!!!Recommend

  • Mar 7, 2016 - 10:10PM

    Liabilities to the nation.Recommend

  • syed & syed
    Mar 8, 2016 - 1:31AM

    What about you Mr. Chaudhry if any one with 4 witnesses blames you for blasphemy. With the lacuna in a law any one can charge other person for blasphemy.Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Mar 8, 2016 - 1:35AM

    How can you deny evolution when you come across such inbred simians?Recommend

  • BIMAL CHANDRA JHA
    Mar 8, 2016 - 4:18AM

    Sir,
    Thanks for the investigating article regarding blasphemy law in Pakistan.The rise in the cases shows that people are rising against blasphemy law and it is the need of the hour to reform the colonial law. We are living in a free society and the people have fundamental right to form their own opinion. Any repression in this regard will be counter productive- BimalRecommend

  • Candid1
    Mar 8, 2016 - 8:41AM

    These people are not fit to be lawyers, they should be disbarred immediately.Recommend

  • Aftab
    Mar 8, 2016 - 9:03AM

    This group should offer such free services to poor who can not afford justice. These lawyers along quadri supporters need education. Unfortunately they went in colleges but come without an educated mind set. Today or tomorrow they need to be abolished for prosperous PakistanRecommend

  • faisal
    Mar 8, 2016 - 11:45AM

    saudi agenda in progressRecommend

  • Sahi
    Mar 9, 2016 - 4:35AM

    Derailed personalities using ( read abusing) religion for personal gains. Recommend

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