A number of lawyers and non-government organisations are in a race to take the credit for representing death-row prisoner Aasia Bibi in an appeal against her conviction in a blasphemy case, The Express Tribune has learnt.
There are at least 12 lawyers associated with this case – four representing the complainant against Aasia Bibi and seven others, including MPA Sardar Khalil Tahir Sindhu, claiming to represent Aasia Bibi. And yet, a Faisalabad-based organisation, which defended her throughout her trial, has been disassociated from the appeal after a Lahore-based organisation hired the same lawyer on a bigger fee than the one the Faisalabad organisation, Bishop John Joseph Shaheed Foundation (BJJSF), was paying him.
The BJJSF had hired Advocate SK Chaudhry to file Aasia Bibi’s appeal in 2010. In 2013, Joseph Francis, director of Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), offered Chaudhry Rs300,000 to represent Aasia Bibi in the Lahore High Court on the behalf of CLAAS, which Chaudhry agreed to do.
And even though the cause list issued by the court mentions seven lawyers, Francis sent statements to several newspapers insisting that no lawyers other than the ones hired by the CLAAS were representing Aasia Bibi.
In a statement, Francis claimed that Advocate Naeem Shakir and SK Chaudhry were defending Aasia Bibi on the behalf of CLAAS. However, Shakir has categorically denied having any connection with CLAAS. He told The Express Tribune that he had nothing to do with CLAAS and was representing Aasia Bibi on behalf of her husband Ashiq Masih. He said Advocate Nadeem Anthony was also with him on the case.
Michael Johnson, an office bearer of the BJJSF, told The Express Tribune that the BJJSF had defended Aasia in the trial court and had filed her appeal before the Lahore High Court “through a lawyer later hijacked by CLAAS”. Considering the situation, he said the BJJSF had decided to disassociate itself from the case.
Johnson Nadeem, who takes care of Aasia Bibi’s family, has told The Express Tribune that Aasia Bibi’s family had not asked the CLAAS or any other organisation to represent Aasia Bibi. Advocate Naeem Shakir has been their attorney for the last two weeks, he said.
Nadeem said that Francis had hired the BJJSF’s previous lawyer so the BJJSF had asked Aashiq to sign a letter of attorney on their behalf. Even though Aashiq did not sign the letter he told Michael Johnson that they had no objection if the BJJSF claimed that Shakir was their lawyer.
Nadeem said Francis had tried to convince Aashiq to let them represent Aasia Bibi in court. After a two-hour debate on the subject, Aashiq told Francis to keep himself away from the case. But the CLAAS then hired Advocate SK Chaudhry, who was already engaged for the case. Bishop Francis told The Express Tribune that he had paid Advocate SK Chaudhry Rs300,000 to switch over from the BJJSF to the CLAAS. He said the lawyer had complained that the BJJSF was paying him a meagre fee. Francis admitted that he had hired the lawyer without the consent of Aasia Bibi or her family because Aashiq had not given him a letter of attorney.
Advocate SK Chaudhry told The Express Tribune that he had been previously hired by the BJJSF, which had given him a meagre compensation but then the CLAAS offered him a decent fee and he accepted. “Michael Johnson is annoyed with me because of this,” he said.
Aslam Parvaiz Sahotra, chairman of the Human Liberation Commission Pakistan, told The Express Tribune that he had also engaged a lawyer for the case that had been hijacked by Francis. He also accused Francis of superseding the power of attorney for Advocate Naseem Anjum, whom Sahotra had hired for Sawan Masih’s bail. Sawan Masih was sentenced to death for blasphemy a few days ago. Sahotra said, after superseding Anjum, the lawyer hired by the CLAAS withdrew Sawan Masih’s bail application so that he would stay in jail, allowing Francis to “mint more money off him”.
Commenting on this allegation, Francis admitted that his lawyer had superseded Anjum and withdrawn the bail application. But, he said, he had done that because bails were never granted in cases tried under Section 295-C (blasphemy). Francis said the CLAAS received sufficient donations and did not need to keep Sawan Masih in prison for this.
Aasia Bibi’s husband Aashiq Masih told The Express Tribune that Advocate SK Chaudhry had been their lawyer for this case, but now it was Advocate Naeem Shakir. He said Francis had tried to convince him to sign the letter of attorney, had even quarrelled with him over it, but Aashiq said he had refused. “Francis misbehaved with me after I refused,” he said.
Advocates Amjad Ali Sherazi, Shehzad Chaudhry, Muhammad Yasin Badar (a member of Free Legal Aid and Settlement), and MPA Sardar Khalil Tahir Sindhu, parliamentary secretary for human rights, minorities’ affairs and law and parliamentary affairs, also represent Aasia Bibi as her counsel. On the other hand, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, Hamid Hameed Chaudhry, Khawaja Ibrar Majal and Mian Asghar Mahmood represent the complainant.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 3rd, 2014.
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