From the death cell
October 12, 2001, from the death cell, Circle 3, Central Jail, Rawalpindi: “I am a victim of Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code abuse. There was no definite evidence against me, still there was much religious pressure and so the mullaism and the abuse of religion got me here. I hope American war against religious terrorism will also affect the religious terrorism of codified law in Pakistan as well as its abuse in the administration of justice.”
So wrote Dr Muhammad Yunus Shaikh, son of Sardar Muhammad. The letter, addressed to me, arrived via a circuitous route during the second week of January 2002. I had of course read much about the man and his misery, and wrote back asking if there was anything I could do to help. The letter was sent by courier and he replied on January 16 : “I had a lot of trouble finding a lawyer at the time of my case proceedings and finally Mian Hussain Chotya of Lahore agreed to take my case. But he worked through religious harassment and a fatwa was issued against him. However, he lodged my petition in the Lahore High Court, at the Rawalpindi [Bench], and now Mr Abid Hassan Manto has very kindly offered his services.”
Mr Manto must be given due credit for having agreed to help a human being in distress.
Younus Shaikh was born in 1955 in Bahawalnagar. His father, a merchant, is a Hafiz-i-Quran. Shaikh studied medicine in Pakistan and in Ireland, and at the time of his arrest he was working part time at a small clinic in Rawalpindi and teaching at the Capital Homeopathic Medical College in Islamabad.
In 1992, Dr Shaikh founded The Enlightenment, an organization committed to rationalist and democratic principles which stands for separation of state and religion. In public meetings and newspaper articles, Dr. Shaikh raised questions about women’s rights and about religion and intolerance. He also founded and led the South Asian Fraternity, which aims at promoting understanding, goodwill and harmony, religious tolerance, interaction, and people-to-people contact amongst the countries of South Asia.
A free thinker, and a dangerously free speaker, the most important books in Yunus Shaikh’s life have been the Quran, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Will and Ariel Durant’s ‘The Story of Civilization’.
In October 2000, he was accused of having made derogatory remarks during one of his lectures on 7th century Arabia and its practices and a group of students who apparently found what he had to say offensive, though historically correct, informed a group of powerful Islamabad mullas who filed a criminal complaint against him under Section 295-C of the PPC.
He was sentenced to death for blasphemy by the Islamabad additional district and sessions court in August 2001 and given one week to appeal to the Lahore High Court, which appeal was admitted but has yet to be heard. During the court hearings, the courtroom was packed by our so-called religious zealots, a menacing bunch, and though a group of mullas from Bahawalnagar testified that Shaikh had committed no blasphemy, the powerful Islamabad mullas won the day.
When General Pervez Musharraf assumed power in November 1999, he declared he would bring democracy, which encompasses religious tolerance, to Pakistan and that he was committed to the principles of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Ironically, it was under Musharraf’s government that Shaikh has been sentenced to death and has so far spent a year and three months in jail. Early in 2001, Musharraf made an attempt to liberalize the Blasphemy Law, but backed down under pressure from the religious right.
Section 295-C of the PPC was introduced by an obsequious general of the Pakistan army who bowed and scraped his way to the top and was rewarded with the post of chief of army staff by a smug Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. When he threw Bhutto out and took over the country General Zia-ul-Haq, as is the wont of his kind, used religion as a prop, abused it to the hilt and after being removed from this mortal scene by a plane explosion in mid-air has left behind a legacy which still haunts and hurts this country.
Section 295-C of the Blasphemy Law provides that whoever by words or visual representation or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.
One of our finer chief justices of Sindh, Mamoon Kazi, wrote a column in this newspaper on July 18, 2000, headed ‘Where procedure could have made a difference’. He told us that no special procedure is provided by the Criminal Procedure Code for the prosecution of the offender and that on the receipt of information relating to the commission of an alleged offence of blasphemy, the officer in charge of a police station may arrest an alleged offender without a warrant. This provision is in no way Islamic but is incorporated in the chapter relating to offences against religion and applies equally to Muslims and non-Muslims.
The good judge confirms that, as is widely known, Section 295-C is commonly abused and used for personal gain and that many people in Pakistan willingly give false evidence under oath either for money or under pressure from interested quarters. When a report is registered by the police, both police and courts are pressured by our religious bigots and the inadequacy of evidence notwithstanding, the accused are generally convicted as the judges trying the cases are naturally more worried about their own safety than about rendering justice. Both Muslims and non-Muslims suffer equally from the abuse and misuse of this iniquitous law.
It is essential that procedural changes be made in the law so that it is less prone to be used by vicious people seeking revenge or reward - but, of course, ideally this section should be struck down from the Code. Now that President Musharraf has come to grips with the fundamentalists and religiosos, he may perhaps move again on the matter.
Over the years, bigots have engineered and ensured that under this same law some 204 members of the Ahmadi community were confined to jails. Cases against 161 have been discharged. The remaining 43 are out on bail presenting themselves in court as and when summoned, which summons are issued more or less once a month. When they appear in court they are told by the presiding officer that their case has been postponed. And so it goes, on and on. In most cases, the presiding officer is terrorized by the presence of a bunch of militant mullas.
Now, after a long time we have a bright and shining unrecycled first law officer of the land representing the people. Young Barrister Makhdoom Ali Khan, my lawyer, is a man of substance who ate his dinners at the same Inn of Law, the Inner Temple, as did my father over 80 years ago. As attorney-general of Pakistan he has enormous powers to do good. Let him find out how many of our citizens there are confined to our jails around the country for allegedly having committed blasphemy under Section 295-C and propose some procedural change and have these men released from jail and the false charges against them dropped. It is inconceivable that any sane man, knowing the laws, would ever contemplate blasphemy.
We are tired of reading each day about threats of war emanating from India and of the statements made by Musharraf about how competent and well armed he and his army are to fight a war. We remain assured that we are ready and able to fight back if attacked and defend ourselves by any and all means at our disposal. We are, of course, aware that all is fair in love and in war. We can assure the president that conditions in our death cells, or for that matter in any cell of our jails, are worse than those prevailing in Guantanamo Bay. Whereas he can do nothing for the men in Guantanamo, by one stroke of his pen he can relieve the suffering of the citizens of his own being held in his own jails.