A protest held by activists from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan following Rashid Rehman's killing (Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pakistani human rights lawyer who was defending a professor accused of blasphemy was shot dead by gunmen yesterday in the southern city Multan, Reuters reports.
Under the Pakistan Penal Code, blasphemy against any religion is prohibited, and infractions carry penalties ranging from a fine to death. One section specifically forbids defaming the Prophet Muhammad. According to Reuters, lawyers are frequently hesistant to take on blasphemy cases, due to threats from religious extremists.
Rashid Rehman, the lawyer in question, was representing Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer in English who had been accused of making blasphemous remarks about the Prophet Muhammad in March of 2013. Hafeez had been in prison without representation until this February, when Rehman agreed to take on the case.
According to Reuters, Rehman was working at night in his office on Wednesday when he was approached by two men posing as clients. The men shot him five times, police said, and he died on the way to the hospital. The next day, an unsigned pamphlet appeared saying that he'd met his "rightful end," adding, "we warn all lawyers to be afraid of god and think twice before engaging in such acts."
Today, lawyers in the city went on strike to mourn Rehman.
At least 16 people are currently on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy, and 20 others are serving life sentences. A 2012 report from the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies says that 52 people accused of blasphemy have been lynched by vigilantes since 1990.
Rehman worked for the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and was a strong advocate for repressed religious minorities in Pakistan. And although he is believed to be the first lawyer killed for defending a blasphemy case, he is certainly not the first public figure to be shot for fighting against intolerance in the country.
Salmaan Taseer, the influential governor of Punjab province, was shot by one of his bodyguards in 2011 after getting into his car. In the months before his murder, he had come under intense criticism for his advocacy on behalf of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy.
George spoke to Taseer's daughter Shehrbano Taseer about the blasphemy laws and her father's legacy.
Shehrbano Taseer's brother Shahbaz Taseer was kidnapped by the Pakistani Taliban in August, 2011 and remains in captivity.
In April, Canada's Ambassador for Religious Freedom, Andrew Bennett, announced a pair of initiatives designed to support religious minorities in the majority-Muslim country.
“Pakistan is a country with a multi-faith and multicultural character, which is similar in ways to Canada’s,” said Bennett in a release. “We remain very concerned by repeated incidents of religiously motivated violence in Pakistan and the callous disregard of extremists for the rights of individuals of all faiths to practise their religion in peace and security.”