Statement by Dr M. Younus Shaikh:

Blasphemy - My Journey through Hell

 

Moderator's note: Dr Younus Shaikh (M.Younes Sheikh), a renowned rationalist and founder-President of the Pakistan based organization 'Enlightenment' who was in the prison under sentence of death for blasphemy and then released at the end of 2003, sent the following article for Mukto-mona members. 

Readers may remember that Mukto-mona had  conducted an international campaign with IHEU, Rationalist International and with Bangladeshi intellectuals, Rationalists and humanists and other Human Rights activists to ensure the release of Dr. Shaikh.  More related news for the new members :

https://gold.mukto-mona.com/news/shaikh_free.htm

 

 

Blasphemy

Muslims are the first victims of Islamism. In a novel and unethical way, Pakistani Mullahs have started abusing the dreadful Islamic Blasphemy laws to terrorise liberal and moderate Muslims.

I am a Pakistani doctor, a physiologist, a patriotic and law-abiding citizen, a Muslim by birth. I trained as a surgeon and worked for some years in the United Kingdom. I gave up my job in the UK in order to return to Pakistan to serve the people of my own country. I obtained a position as a lecturer in Physiology at the Capital Homeopathic Hospital, Islamabad.

One of my reasons for returning to Pakistan was to campaign for Human Rights and civil liberties in Pakistan: to work for the Pakistan-India peace movement, to struggle for liberalism, secularism and humanism, and to counter the forces of religious extremism and fundamentalism.

 

My Case

On 1st October 2000 I attended a meeting of the South Asian Union in Islamabad on the topic of Pakistani-India Relations and Nuclear War. In a statement from the floor of the meeting I expressed the view that Pakistan and India should agree that in the interest of the people of Kashmir, that the present line of demarcation should become the peace line: the international border between the two countries. I also expressed the view that if Pakistan continued to support “freedom fighters”- terrorists - in our neighboring country, then our neighbor might respond in a similar way, culminating in a new calamity like the one we experienced in the 1971 Civil War and the loss of East Pakistan.

Following my statement, Mr. Shaukat Qadir, a Brigadier from military intelligence, the ISI, (now an employee of SDPI Islamabad and a Columnist with the Daily Times, Lahore-Pakistan) threatened me and said that he would “crush the heads of those who think and talk like that”.

Two days later, I was called into the office of the principal of the college and was summarily dismissed from my job without notice. No reason was given. On 4th October, I received a message asking me to present myself in the principal’s office. I did so, and was immediately handed over to the police. I was arrested on a charge of blasphemy. The complaint had been filed under section 295/ C of the Pakistan Penal Code by a Muslim cleric of the Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-i-Nabuwat (Committee for the Finality of the Prophethood) with the added suspicion that I might belong to the “heretical” Ahmedi community.

The charges against me centred on some utterances I was alleged to have made in the course of a lecture at the college on 2nd October 2000, that neither the Prophet of Islam nor his parents could have been Muslims before Islam was revealed to the Prophet. I was also alleged to have said that the Prophet was unlikely to have shaved under his armpits since the custom was probably unknown to his tribe at the time. These remarks were interpreted by my accusers, the Mullahs, as an insult to the Prophet. I did not actually make the alleged remarks. The mullahs themselves never heard me make any such remarks, nor did they investigate whether any such incident had ever occurred. In fact, I gave no lecture at the time alleged. During the course of the trial the chief witness against me was totally discredited. He admitted that he was not actually present in the college on the day the alleged remarks were made.

My trial

If you are accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, you will usually be denied bail and held in custody until trial. If found guilty, you will face a mandatory death sentence. My trial was held in a series of sessions throughout the summer of 2001. Although neither a body of crime was established nor did the evidence prove any occurrence of blasphemy, I was pronounced guilty on 18th August 2001, fined 100,000 rupees, and sentenced to death - nearly nine months after my arrest.

The specific charge on which I was found guilty was “Insulting the Prophet”. To many European observers it might seem illogical that death sentence could be awarded without proving the incidence or establishing the body of crime, however, that is the way blasphemy cases are adjudicated upon in the very Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

For the next two years, I was held in solitary confinement in a very small death cell in the Central Jail, Rawalpindi, a dark and dirty death cell with unbearable, stinking and distasteful food. There was no facility for walking or exercise, and I was without books, newspapers, medication or treatment for my worsening diabetes. I remained constantly under threat of murder by Islamic fundamentalist inmates in jail for murder and gang rape, and by some religiously-minded prison warders. I appealed. My appeal was heard over several sessions lasting 15 long months before the two judges managed to disagree over their verdict, one Islamic/minded judge rejected the appeal without giving any legal grounds for doing so, while the other legal-minded judge stated that the prosecution had failed to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt and that the witnesses were neither trustworthy nor reliable. The referee High Court judge took another year and sent the case for retrial.

The retrial was held in November 2003 at the Court of the Session in Islamabad. Because of threats and harassment no lawyer was ready to plead my case, and I was forced to defend myself for survival, which I did after secretly smuggling law books into my death cell. At the retrial the courtroom was full of mullahs and the Pakistani Taliban. The two mullah advocates and the Public Prosecutor tried to exploit the religious feelings of the court but I confined my defense to legal arguments. I was inspired by the defense speech of Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Fortunately the outcome in my case was different. The judge accepted my legal arguments and found charges against me baseless. My accusers, the two Mullahs and the Islamist students had lied under oath.

I was acquitted on 21st November 2003.

My Ordeal

I feel I have been a victim of Islamic Mullah terrorism through he abuse of the state apparatus and the civil law. My first trial was a show trial almost reminiscent of the trials and tortures of the infamous Spanish inquisition, and the trials and burning of European women as witches. After my acquittal and release, I wanted to stay in my country with my family and friends but instead I found myself under a fatwa by the same mullahs that I should be killed. I had to say goodbye to my loved ones and flee to Europe for my safety.

I am very thankful to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the various humanist organisations and individual humanists,  Mukto-Mona  and all of the other human rights organisations who campaigned on my behalf: Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights USA, the Jubilee Campaign USA, and the many honorable senators and congressmen from the United States, and UK members of parliament. I also want to thank the Swiss and US embassies in Islamabad and the Swiss government for their ceaseless support for justice and equity in my case. I am very grateful to the Swiss government for granting me refugee status in Switzerland.

What is blasphemy?

What then constitutes blasphemy? Unfortunately the Pakistani Penal Code provides little guidance. The law is vague and the term is undefined. In view of the mandatory death penalty for the offence this would seem to be an important oversight. The law is a relic of 1860 British colonial criminal law, but was modified in 1926 again under the British, then in 1986 by General Zia to make it more strictly in accordance with the Sharia, and finally in 1992 when the death penalty was made mandatory – this under the democratically-elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Whereas the original law had been even-handed and applied equally to all religions, under the revised law the death penalty applies only to blasphemy against Islam. More than a hundred victims are currently in jail awaiting trial, 15 of whom face the death penalty under section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code. Mercifully, none have so far been executed.

In another famous case, a Christian, Ayub Masih was condemned to death for blasphemy on the unsupported evidence of a neighbour, Muhammad Akram who was involved with him in a land dispute and who was awarded property belonging to the accused after the case was decided. The verdict and sentence were upheld by the Lahore High Court on July 25, 2001. However, after seven long years of unnecessary incarceration in the death cell, he was found innocent and acquitted by the Supreme Court.

Despite their successes in obtaining convictions, the fundamentalists have not been willing to leave judgement and execution to the courts. Several people have been murdered by Islamic zealots after having been acquitted by the courts. Others accused of blasphemy have been murdered in jail while awaiting trial and even a High Court judge was murdered after finding one prisoner not guilty.

Pakistan’s shame

The blasphemy law has brought shame on Pakistan. The law itself is unjust and inequitable, the offence it treats is poorly defined and open to abuse, and its operation has been widely misused and abused. Since the introduction of Sharia law in Pakistan in 1986, the blasphemy law has been used on hundreds of occasions by fundamentalists to silence moderate opponents, to intimidate non-Muslims and to settle personal scores.

While praising President General Pervez Musharraf for his liberal and secular steps, and for his courageous fight against Islamic Jihadi terrorism, I appeal to him to curb this menace of Islamic Mullah terrorism: the abuse of Pakistani Islamic blasphemy laws. I call upon the Commission on Human Rights to press the government of Pakistan:

1) to urgently review the cases of all those currently charged or convicted of blasphemy and awaiting execution, including an urgent judicial review of all cases currently sub-judice;

2) to immediately review the application of the blasphemy law and to introduce safeguards against its abuse;

3) to replace the blasphemy law by laws which respect the human rights of individuals in conformity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Pakistan is a signatory.

4) and finally to compensate the victims of these unjust and iniquitous laws and to punish the false accusers and untruthful witnesses.

Thank you.

 

 

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