Pakistani Scholar Sentenced to Death for Blasphemy

Endangered Scholars Worldwide learned that a comparative literature lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in Multan, Pakistan, was sentenced to death on charges of blasphemy on December 21, 2019. Junaid Hafeez, 33, was arrested in March 2013, on grounds of insulting the prophet Muhammad and Quran via his social media comments. He was also accused of hosting Qaisra Shahraz, a famous Pakistani-British novelist as a guest speaker, and sharing blasphemous remarks against Islam during a lecture.

Junaid Hafeez | Photo credit: Deutsche Welle

Mr. Hafeez studied English Literature in Punjab and earned a Master's degree in the US as a Fulbright scholar. After returning to Pakistan, he took up a lecturer position at BZU to teach English literature, while conducting his ethnographic research on masculinity in popular cinema in Multan. During his tenure, he was recurrently targeted by the Islamist group Islami Jamiat Talaba, a student organization affiliated with the radical Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami. They distributed pamphlets across the campus and called for Hafeez’s arrest and removal from the faculty, accusing him of blasphemy and treason. Eventually, those attempts resulted in the revocation of Hafeez’s contract and his arrest.

Mr. Hafeez has been imprisoned for six years without a trial. His first lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was assassinated in 2014, after agreeing to represent Hafeez. Since Mr. Rehman’s murder, Hafeez has been kept in solitary confinement and the trial was held in a high-security prison in Multan, behind closed doors. Since 2018, it has been reported that Hafeez’s mental and physical health have been declining. "He has been very agitated. He cannot talk very coherently," his lawyer said to Al Jazeera. After six years of solitary confinement and insufficient medical counsel, such a deterioration is alarming and predictable. His current lawyer described the atmosphere during the court hearing as terrifying and intimidating, and he plans on appealing the verdict at Lahore High Court.

Hafeez's family and lawyer also shared their concerns that even if the appeal to the High Court resulted in the acquittal of all charges, it might lead to extrajudicial mob violence. Since 1990, at least 88 people have been killed in Pakistan in connection with blasphemy accusations. Those murdered include those accused of the crime, people acquitted by the courts, their lawyers, family members and judges connected to their cases. Allegations of blasphemy are taken very seriously in Pakistan, and even an accusation is often enough to make someone a target in the eyes of the public. Pakistan's blasphemy laws carry strict sentences, including death, for anyone who insults Islam. About 40 people are currently on death row for blasphemy - although so far, no executions for blasphemy have been carried out. Moreover, the regulations concerning blasphemy are not limited to the judiciary. In July 2020, the provincial government of Punjab banned 100 textbooks taught in private schools for carrying “blasphemous and anti-Pakistan” content. The authorities said the banned books distorted facts about Islam and the history of Pakistan.

Endangered Scholars Worldwide considers the incarceration and inhumane treatment of Junaid Hafeez a flagrant and unjust violation of the freedom, security, and safety of scholars and students in Pakistan. We call upon the Pakistani government to immediately and unconditionally release Hafeez and other academics and students and to respect, guarantee, and implement the provisions and principles of human rights. The recurring wave of vicious campaigns against academics accused of blasphemy in Pakistan is alarming. We deplore all attempts to limit academic freedom by targeting intellectuals on insubstantial grounds. We believe that the ongoing, increasingly severe attacks against university students and faculty in Pakistan bring up grave concerns over the ability of scholars, intellectuals, and students to work safely in the country’s educational settings.

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