Tue, Mar 08, 2016 - Page 6 News List

Pakistani lawyers’ group behind blasphemy cases

Reuters, ISLAMABAD

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.

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 the Prophet Mohammad 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 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 defense 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.

Chaudhry argued, 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 last week, showering his casket with flowers.

“He lives. Qadri lives,” supporters around the coffin cried. “From your blood, the revolution will come.”

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 Islamist militants and their religious allies.

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 last year as stricter provincial rules were applied, but critics said the number was still too high.

Chaudhry said he had personally been involved in more than 50 cases.

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