Shackled: Guilty until proven innocent

Published: May 31, 2013
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Prisoners accused of blasphemy face gross abuse and mental torture as they languish in jails across the country. PHOTO: EXPRESS

Prisoners accused of blasphemy face gross abuse and mental torture as they languish in jails across the country. PHOTO: EXPRESS

KARACHI: 

Hamid Hussain, 25, lives in a state of constant fear. Life before last March, the month when everything turned upside down, now seems a distant dream.

Hussain was considered a blasphemy suspect, and straight away flung into a cell exclusively for militants and terrorists. He spent several days and nights in solitary confinement – a five-by-five room, a dim light bulb, an overflowing toilet.

The words ‘Tauheen-e-Risalat’ were stamped outside the cell door.

“Inmates would kick and shout, ‘Kafir, we will kill you!’” the bulky, unshaved prisoner recalls in a low voice, speaking through the intercom at Malir Jail, where he was eventually transferred after receiving unending threats in the Karachi Central Jail. “I would lay awake the entire night, waiting for the time that they [the inmates] would slip into my room and slit my throat.”

Rampant abuse behind locked doors

In the dark, shackled world of jails, life for blasphemy prisoners is harsh. They are abused by officials, threatened by inmates, and shunned by family. Many are placed in isolated rooms, a treatment usually reserved for high-profile prisoners.

And yet, despite these accounts, jail officials deny mistreatment of such prisoners and defend the decision to isolate them.

“These cases are sensitive and need to be kept alone to avoid attacks,” states Inspector General Prisons Nusrat Mangan.

He refuses to share details of how many blasphemy accused are currently in Karachi jails

Of reluctant lawyers and desperate clients

Hussain, like most other blasphemy prisoners, faces the problem of lacking proper representation in court, as lawyers are unwilling to take on these controversial cases. He was accused of blasphemy just days after he moved from Tehran to Karachi, and his father, lawyer Imran Liaquat Hussain, initially handled his representation.

However, the death of his father just two months ago has left him in the lurch.

His case is somewhat peculiar. It was initially registered under section 295-A against three men in December, 2011, for circulating pamphlets. According to Hussain, his name was furtively inserted into the FIR four months after it was first registered.

“The allegations are absurd. I have nothing to do with the circulation of the pamphlets. I don’t know the printer or the distributer or the men involved,” says Hussain, discreetly glancing at the Ferrari watch on his wrist. “One police inspector who knew my family lodged a false case against me. He then asked me to pay Rs25 lakh for dropping it.”

His mother, Farzana, stands separated from her son by a glass window, worry etched across her face. According to her, the family has approached several lawyers, all of who have turned down the case or demanded obscene amounts of money for pursuing it.

Senior lawyer Farooq Ahmed reiterates this stance. He adds that lawyers avoid such cases because of potential threats. “When private lawyers refuse to take up these cases, the court then calls for a lawyer at the state’s expense, but these, too, are unwilling,” says Ahmed.

Anguish and angst

Shopkeeper Saleem Suleman, who was accused of blasphemy and interviewed last year, could not stop crying hysterically and shouting for help.

This is not uncommon. A dearth of psychologists and counselling services leaves many blasphemy prisoners shaky and unstable. In 2011, Karachi’s central jail witnessed the true extent of the mental anguish when convict Qamar David died due to a heart attack. Letters written to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) during his time in prison stated repeatedly that he was under severe mental stress and constantly feared death.

“It is the responsibility of the prison authorities to provide security to such prisoners,” says HRCP Chairperson Zohra Yusuf. “Prisoners cannot be kept in isolation for long stretches as this results in depression.”

Yusuf adds that there have been multiple cases of those accused of blasphemy being killed in jails across the country.

Hussain, who has spent 15 months in jail already, is indeed depressed and lonely. In this state, he clings to the writings of Rumi, Ghalib and Firdousi. “I can’ wait for my case to be over,” he says quietly, looking down. “The jail is not safe for me, and neither will the city be once I’m out. The first thing I will do is leave the country.”

Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2013.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Riz
    May 31, 2013 - 9:58AM

    A lot of hatred is on the rise in Pakistan. Minority vs majority. People settle their score by using blasphemy law and their is no chance for the accused to live a normal life if, in case, he gets equitted by the court of law. People outside are there to kill those who gets rejected, dispised, hated, brutally tortured, mentally and physically. Do they lose the right to be called a human being? They are humiliated because they are weak?

    There are millions of people writing, talking, openly against islam all around the world. Salman Rushdie is one. Nobody kills him because he’s secure. Yeah, Mr. Salman Taseer, ex governer, got assassinated because we have ‘street justice’ culture. Freedom to kill, rape, molest, and all the evils you can name.

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  • Irfan Khan
    May 31, 2013 - 10:24AM

    Blasphemy is a victimless crime.It’s high time freedom from religion was given equal importance as the freedom of religion.There must be no holy cows,ideologies,opinions shouldn’t need protection by draconian laws,all philosophies must remain open to critique.

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  • np
    May 31, 2013 - 10:32AM

    Exception is if you are Chinese.

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  • Parvez
    May 31, 2013 - 10:46AM

    It is such a shame. Blasphemy laws have brought untold miseries and injustices to so many innocent people. We, as a nation, shall pay for what we are doing. We need to start a movement to get rid of these laws. For how long shall we keep living in a medieval world.

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  • Ali J
    May 31, 2013 - 10:58AM

    Shame on us! Where is our society going towards? Religion is a means of living life and peace, not a means of retribution or suffering for others. I hope this guys gets out safely!

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  • gp65
    May 31, 2013 - 11:18AM

    @Riz: “A lot of hatred is on the rise in Pakistan. Minority vs majority.”

    This incorrectly implies that the hatred and violence are bidirectional. Agree with rest of your post though.

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  • Libra
    May 31, 2013 - 11:59AM

    Legislators and judiciary must look into that this law is often used to victimize people.

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  • Rabnawaz
    May 31, 2013 - 12:16PM

    After reading this article, I get the impression that charitable donations can in some circumstances be used as a disguise for bribery.. I hope you would agree that it is not an example of responsible journalism. Nobody bothered to get the version of the other party and a one-sided story was published verbatim. We did not expect it from a responsible paper like the Express Tribune.

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  • syed baqar ahsan
    May 31, 2013 - 12:36PM

    Dare not somebody touch anybody in jail it only happens when jail staff is involved by those who involve innocent people for such gravest crime and use jail staff inside to embarrass Pakistan

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  • Aftab Kenneth Wilson
    May 31, 2013 - 1:01PM

    Please try to understand that blasphemy is only when someone speaks against Allah (God). The present law is man made and as such should be considered as non and void. This law is only applicable in hardly few countries out of nearly 57 Muslim countries in the world.

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  • Ali
    May 31, 2013 - 1:02PM

    The vast majority of alleged blasphemers are innocent, probably somewhere around 90%. The same way the vast majority of drone attack victims are innocent, we hear about the strikes every few days but once every year we hear they eliminated someone important.

    I don’t see the ‘liberals’ shouting out for the innocent drone victims.

    For the record, I am against the militant Taliban but at the same time I prefer peaceful negotiations so innocent lives can be saved. At the same time, I support a change in blasphemy law so the innocents who are often accused due to money/animosity factors are protected. There can be balance in everything.

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  • gp65
    May 31, 2013 - 1:05PM

    @Libra: “Legislators and judiciary must look into that this law is often used to victimize people.”

    Easier said than done. Sherry Rehman tried to do introduce a private member’s bill to change some of the implementation aspects of the law.For that someone has slammed her with a blasphemy charge. In any case seeing the fate of Taseer and Bhatti, her bill never even made i to the agenda of the parliament. Anyone who could speak is either dead or silenced.

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  • Jason Hollier
    May 31, 2013 - 2:01PM

    Can anyone point out a single good that comes from these laws? Is the condition of humanity advanced in any way? I would really like to hear from a religious person’s perspective the good that this brings.

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  • Maddy
    May 31, 2013 - 2:02PM

    Sad.

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  • naive
    May 31, 2013 - 2:04PM

    Blasphemy law is the ultimate weapon available to all crooks in Pakistan. This weapon is more powerful and more dangerous, at individual level, than a nuclear bomb. Will a nuclear power ever give up its nuclear weapons? Never. Once promulgated blasphemy laws can never be repealed. Only escape route for all good people of Pakistan is to leave.

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  • May 31, 2013 - 3:20PM

    @naive:

    Applause to you. This law is, at least to those in Pakistan, even more powerful than the country’s considerable nuclear arsenal. Sadly, Pakistan is unlikely to give up either.

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  • goggi
    May 31, 2013 - 3:56PM

    This miraculous life is a Quiz-Programme and we all are equal candidates!

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  • Ahmed Ali Khan
    May 31, 2013 - 4:34PM

    Blasphemy law is there to stay in Pakistan. Please stop crying about it. If anybody is charged wrongly then the courts are there to prove your innocence. Maybe we need to make the procedure more transparent.

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  • Anti Denialist
    Jun 8, 2013 - 1:23AM

    @Ahmed Ali Khan:
    You have hurt my Islamic feelings by that comment. I declare you having committed blasphemy and demand you be tried for this offense. Please let the courts decide your innocence.

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