Rashid Rehman, a courageous human rights activist and lawyer, was targeted for pleading the case of a blasphemy accused — a young university teacher whose case no other lawyer was willing to take up.
On Wednesday, two armed youngsters entered Rehman office, close to district courts in Multan city, when he was with a visitor along with his aide. They shot five bullets at him, one hit the right temple, killing him instantly, according to the police account.
Rehman was openly threatened at a jail-trial hearing (otherwise considered a secure environment in such sensitive cases) of the blasphemy case in the Central Jail of Multan on April 9.
“The courtroom was packed with around 20 unauthorised persons including many lawyers voluntarily present to plead the case against the accused, despite the fact that complainant in the case was a police official (state) itself,” recalls a witness to the incident in the jail.
Earlier, another counsel had declined to contest the case, succumbing to threats and pressures from hardline religious groups.
“Unauthorised lawyers have joined hands with people from banned groups to put pressure and deny the accused the right to defend or move for bail,” late Rehman told this scribe a week earlier at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) head office in Lahore. Regarding the threat, he said “they were from a banned organisation and the judge was silent before them.”
Rehman was without any security despite having informed the government of the threat.
The systematic denial of legal representation to the accused of blasphemy is becoming more dangerous in Pakistan for the past many years.
In its statement mourning the loss of Rashid Rehman, HRCP has once again demanded “that cases be immediately registered against those who had threatened Rashid and his killers be brought to justice.”
“I salute Rashid Rehman’s struggle for human rights and his sacrifice. He was a brave man. He stood against all odds till the last moment of his life. Human rights movements in Pakistan shall ever be proud of him,” says Naeem Shakir, a senior lawyer who has been a counsel in many blasphemy cases.
“By their presence in good numbers now even in jail trials, such elements try to put the court and the defence counsels under pressure.” he says. “The state needs to ensure enough security for trial proceedings and defence counsels but that is being repeatedly ignored, letting such incidents happen.”
“Such trials should be held in-camera or in an atmosphere which is conducive to administration of justice,” asserts Shakir. There is slackness on the part of administration — how else can counsels be threatened in the court of law. “Chief Justice of Pakistan and chiefs of all high courts must pay serious attention to this important issue to ensure fair trial of every citizen, as provided by Article 10 of the Constitution.”
Born in 1958 in a Baloch tribe (Rind) that moved from Indian Punjab to Pakistan after the partition, late Rehman grew up in a political family. His father Ashfaq Ahmed Khan was a political activist who was once elected member of provincial assembly. Later, he was appointed ambassador to Vietnam during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime. His family settled in Multan after the partition. He was a lawyer for more than last 25 years and remained associated with HRCP for more than two decades; his last assignment was Task Force Coordinator for HRCP.
Living with his wife and mother in Multan city, Rashid Rehman was popular in the legal community and civil society.
On May 8, District Bar Association of Multan went on strike to condemn his killing — an act which he always disliked, believing that common man who comes to the courts suffers because of such strikes. “He was brave and quite a popular man. Dozens of people used to come to him for legal aid and he never refused it to anyone,” recalls one of his young colleagues.
“Activism was in his blood and he was never afraid to raise his voice for the marginalised sections of society. His assassination is a great loss to HRCP. He was not given any security by the government despite our pursuance,” says Hussain Naqi, national coordinator of HRCP.
“Our Establishment is obsessed with protecting an abstraction, as in the so-called image and ‘reputation’ of its agencies, but the state is impotent in protecting the actual lives of its valued citizens. The nexus of mullah-military is alive and kicking…” reads a statement by the Karachi chapter of Women Action Forum.
“Now, the Punjab government has to decide how to deal with the collapse of the justice and administrative system in south Punjab,” it says.
“The professor in jail must be given immediate protection, an in-jail fair trial under strict and immediate security provisions guaranteed by the Punjab government,” WAF further demands.
In a recent interview for BBC Urdu, Rehman had said that defending a blasphemy case was like going into the ‘jaws of death’. He said it was difficult for lawyers to function because of the threats they were under.
“Rashid is no more but his mission will continue. We will follow in his footsteps,” says his young associate with determination.