Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, has been an inspiration for many jurists because the story’s main character was a lawyer named Atticus Finch, who courageously defended an African-American man wrongly accused of rape in a small racist town. Defending the defenceless is a key theme of the story and was embodied in real life by Rashid Rehman, a Pakistani lawyer, killed last week due to his legal defence of a professor accused of blasphemy. However, lawyers that follow this passion for justice are quickly becoming an endangered species in Pakistan.
The stories of Atticus Finch and Rashid Rehman are not dissimilar if one looks to the defendants they chose to represent during their careers. In the case of Atticus, he was appointed to represent an African-American (Tom Robinson) by the local judge, because no other lawyer in town would be willing to take up such a case. This is because defending even an innocent black man in a rape case against a white woman in the United States during the 1930s could lead to death threats or worst for the lawyer and his/her client. This was a time of vicious discrimination against African-Americans, when it was not uncommon in some parts of the country for a mob to lynch a black man based on unfounded accusations, before he could even be arrested.
This should sound familiar to some of Pakistan’s minorities, whether their position as minorities is linked to immutable properties like ethnicity, to their faith, or to their political opinion. The list of Tom Robinsons is growing exponentially, following the increasingly violent and hateful rhetoric accepted in public discourse. Anyone who challenges the right-way’s drift into madness is termed an infidel or fascist, their days numbered, whether it was Governor Taseer requesting reexamination of certain laws or Rashid Rehman having the temerity to provide a legal defence for someone accused of blasphemy.
However, there is a difference between Lee’s Tom Robinson and Pakistan’s minorities. Tom was saved from mob violence and given a prejudiced trial; Pakistan’s minorities are killed at a moment’s notice, whether through the bullets of an assassin, the bombs of a terrorist or the noose of a lynch mob. And where is the state amongst all this civilian bloodletting?
In Rashid Rehman’s case, despite several news stories and complaints to the local police about threats to his safety — which eventually led to his murder — he was provided no police security. Much like Atticus, he was not deterred by threats to his safety, but unlike Atticus, no one could save him from the gunmen that burst into his office.
In this way, reality and the book diverge. In Mockingbird, the lawyer goes on to live his life after he is unable to save his client from a bigoted society. But as far as Mr Rehman is concerned, he lost his life while his client will continue to languish in jail without representation, since taking on such a task may be a death sentence for whichever lawyer is courageous or foolhardy enough to take the case.
So, let us mourn the murder of a guardian for justice, but let’s not forget what he stood for as an attorney and human rights defender. Though his ilk have been targeted continually to the point of extinction and society sits passively numb watching their extermination, the fighters keep fighting. Perhaps, based on a belief they share with Atticus Finch, who argued that “in this country our courts are the great levelers... I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system. That’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality!” As such, it’s time to realise that those working to achieve the reality of justice are not naïve, nor are they purely idealists. They are working every day, risking their personal safety without attention, only to be recognised and appreciated once they are murdered and their voices silenced.
The sympathisers of his killer should remember that Rehman was disturbing the eerie quiet of today’s age of hate with the song of justice. And as Lee wrote “[mockingbirds] don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2014.
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