Activists and residents on Thursday condemned the murder of prominent human rights defender and lawyer, Rashid Rehman and demanded the government to provide protection to the rights defenders.
Human rights activists and defenders in the capital said for them, the message from Rehman’s murder is simple: those who speak up for human rights in Pakistan, especially in cases related to the blasphemy laws, will be targeted, most often with impunity.
They had gathered at the Islamabad office of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and later staged a protest demonstration at the Super Market, to condemn Rehman’s killing.
Rehman, who had received death threats for defending in court a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, was shot dead at his chamber in Multan on Wednesday evening.
For many, his murder has exposed, once again, the state’s inability to protect human rights activists and the challenges to access to justice for people who are accused of blasphemy.
It is a message that has bled before their eyes before, at least twice in Islamabad itself — Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by his own security guard in January 2011 for his bold stance on the blasphemy laws and, in March the same year, minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti — was gunned down in I-8 sector.
Human rights defenders have long held the blasphemy laws to be a draconian decree, often used for personal vendetta or to target religious minorities. Worse, perhaps, is the fact that most people accused of blasphemy are considered guilty by the public even before a fair trial.
They said they were appalled that the judge who heard the proceedings did not consider the threats serious enough. Rehman, who was the Multan Task Force Coordinator of the HRCP, was not provided security despite written complaint, they said.
The protection of human rights defenders is a state obligation that Pakistan has agreed to in the United Nations Universal Periodical Review reports, said activist Tahira Abdullah.
“Is the state unwilling or unable to stop impunity, that is the question I have,” Abdullah said.
In an email message, she said Rashid was “too fearless, too brave and courageous, too rooted in his principled stance to be able to compromise on it even one iota, even under severe threat.”
Friends and colleagues remembered Rehman as a committed, truthful individual who did not cower from taking legal cases on human rights issues that no other lawyer dared to handle. In emotional scenes, they remembered his fearlessness but also said they are aware the eventuality of a similar death is real for them as well.
“Rehman’s murder is an indication that it will be me or some other activist targeted tomorrow,” said anthropologist and activist Samar Minallah, who held a placard at the demonstration that read ‘Speak Up Get Shot.’
Candle light vigil
“It is a matter of concern that people who are defending the weakest segments of society are not safe,” Minallah said. She was joined by around 30 civil society activists at the Super Market demonstration organised by the Insani Huqooq Ittehad.
The demonstrators lit candles in Rehman’s memory and shouted slogans calling upon the government and judiciary to arrest the killers. The HRCP issued a similar demand from its Lahore headquarters.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2014.