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Dawn: Herald Exclusive: The Law of Diminishing Utility

Author: Asad Jamal
February 15, 2011

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Writing in Dawn, Pakistani lawyer Asad Jamal chronicles the political pressure and flawed judicial system that lead to the suffering of innocent citizens on blasphemy charges, fracturing society more than preserving religious morality.

Zaibunnisa was jailed in 1996 on blasphemy charges when Qari Hafeez, a cleric from Lahore, complained to the police that he had found torn pages of the Quran thrown in a drain. A medical board declared her mentally ill soon after her arrest, but she was still incarcerated. It was only in July 2010, 14 years after she was first sent behind bars, that the Lahore High Court ordered her release, but not on medical grounds. Her lawyer had convinced the court that there was no evidence linking her to the crime. After she was freed, Hafeez told the media that he had not named her as an offender and a police official reportedly told journalists that she had been arrested to defuse tension that had developed in the area over the defiling of the Quran.

That an innocent, mentally-challenged woman had to spend nearly a decade and a half in prison because the police made her a scapegoat is as much a comment on the ideological biases of judges, lawyers and law-enforcement agencies as it is a description of the multiple pressures they face in blasphemy cases. In almost all these cases, trial courts are either unwilling to give the accused the benefit of the doubt or are under pressure to dispense strict punishment even when, as in Zaibunnisa’s trial, evidence is not solid and incriminating.

Senior Supreme Court lawyer Abid Hassan Minto tells the Herald that hers is not an isolated case. “Many blasphemy cases go on for years,” he says. “Sometimes even bail applications are not taken up because judges and prosecution lawyers use delaying tactics to keep the accused in jail as long as they possibly can without his or her trial reaching a conclusion.” Naeem Shakir, a senior lawyer based in Lahore who has served as defence counsel in dozens of blasphemy cases, says the prosecution and even judges do not really want those accused of blasphemy to get justice. “Short of awarding the death penalty instantly, both lawyers and judges want to prolong the agony of the accused to the maximum,” he says.

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