Pakistan court sentences academic to death for blasphemy

A Pakistani lower court has sentenced a 33-year-old English lecturer to death for blasphemy. Junaid Hafeez was arrested in 2013 and has been in solitary confinement since then. Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan where a mere accusation of insulting Islam can lead to mob violence and in many cases deaths.

Junaid Hafeez's arrest and trial

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Hafeez got his masters in English from the United States' Jackson State University, under the Fulbright Scholarship Program. Upon his return to Pakistan, he started working as an English lecturer at a Pakistani university. Owing to his liberal thinking, he often invited women's rights activists to the campus to deliver guest lectures and engage with students.

Hafeez was accused of having made blasphemous remarks along with one such woman guest. The woman, Qaisra Shahraz, had to flee the country, while Hafeez was arrested in 2013. He was also accused of posting offensive material on Facebook, including comments about the wives of Prophet Muhammad and of having blasphemous content in his laptop.

Hafeez's first lawyer had to leave his case amid widespread opposition. His second lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was shot dead in his chamber in May 2014. At least seven judges were transferred through the course of Hafeez's case.

Throughout these six years, Hafeez has been kept in solitary confinement. In September this year, Amnesty International, called for his release.

'Unfortunate verdict'

death sentence
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On Saturday (December 20, 2019), the Pakistani court pronounced the death sentence and imposed a fine of 0.5 million Pakistani rupees ($3,230). In case of default he will undergo further imprisonment of six months, Pakistan's Dawn reported. He was also given life imprisonment and rigorous imprisonment for 10 years. All sentences will run consecutively.

Hafeez's family has called this an "unfortunate verdict which has less to do with the legal merits of the case and more with the sociopolitical environment in which the lower judiciary operates".

Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws

Though many Islamic countries have blasphemy laws, Pakistan has the harshest and the most vaguely defined laws. Any act intended to "outrage religious feelings" is punishable by 10 years in prison. Defiling the Koran mandates a life sentence, and "derogatory" comments against Prophet Muhammad invite "mandatory death" punishment.

Even if not convicted, a mere accusation of blasphemy prompts mob violence, which in many cases have even lead to deaths. In 2017, a college student was beaten to death in his university over accusations of blasphemy. In 2014, a Christian couple was beaten to death and thrown into an open-air brick furnace over the accusation that they had burnt the Koran.