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Blasphemy-accused prisoners in isolation

With undue delays in their trial and the judges reluctant to grant bail, the blasphemy-accused are forced to spend many vulnerable years in jails in isolation. Lawyers suggest measures to make things better

Blasphemy-accused prisoners in isolation

25-year old Walaiha Arfat, accused of desecrating a copy of the Holy Quran, spent almost 42 months in Lahore’s central prison for a charge that she consistently denies. She was recently released on bail on Oct 15.

While her trial is still underway at the lower court, the lower court and the Lahore High Court first delayed the proceedings on her bail applications for weeks and later rejected the request on the ground that it was a “serious nature” crime and does not allow them to grant bail. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Pakistan granted her bail a few days ago after her counsel presented the case before a three-member bench.

According to court documents, on March 3, 2012, people gathered outside Arfat’s home in Lahore before sunrise after hearing cries of her friend. They came to know that the accused was found sleeping on the floor on some pieces of paper which were actually the pages of the Quran.

Arfat now suffers from mood disorders and bouts of depression, according to her medical reports and counsel. While in jail, she also tried to commit suicide in her barrack in deep frustration, the documents read. Later, she was taken to a mental health institute for psychological examination. Talking to TNS after her bail, Arfat says she was kept in jail for a long time for a crime she did not commit, adding that the case against her is fabricated. “I came to know in the police station that I had committed blasphemy,” she says, adding she would never forget the dark days of jail where she was denied all legal rights.

Blasphemy-accused in this country face serious threats from extremist elements in the society. Bails in such cases are considered a rare relief. While in jail, the under-trial inmates are vulnerable to attacks from other prisoners and even jail staff because of religious sentiments. Considering the level of threat in the already overcrowded prisons, the jail authorities have no other option but to put these blasphemy-accused inmates in isolated cells.

About one year back, Muhammad Saqib, a mentally-ill person who claimed to be a prophet, was brutally attacked by a death-row prisoner in the Central Jail, Gujranwala. Last year, in Adiala jail Rawalpindi, a duty guard had a ‘dream’ that he should kill a prisoner Muhammad Asghar, a 70-year old alleged blasphemer and according to his family mentally-sick British national. In 2009, the Gujrat police arrested composers of an allegedly blasphemous book. A few days later, one guard fired at and killed one of the accused in police custody. In 2003, a Christian Samuel Masih was booked for blasphemy and later killed by a constable in police custody in Lahore. In 2002, a Muslim cleric Yousaf Ali was charged of committing blasphemy in Lahore. He was sentenced to death but shot dead in jail the same year.

After such cases, there is now a trend of holding blasphemy trials inside the jails, like Walaiha Arfat’s. But the dangers faced by the accused and in some cases even the lawyers are still not mitigated.

“The way forward is to give high priority to such cases and conclude the trials within four months,” says advocate Hina Jilani.

Senior lawyer and human rights activist Hina Jilani says that pre-trial detention period of blasphemy-accused prisoners is very long. Their trials take a long time and they have to spend this time in jails without bail. “In the jails, they live in a very bad condition because there is no provision of protective custody; for security reasons they are put in isolation,” she says, recalling her recent visit to a Lahore jail where three blasphemy-accused women were kept in complete isolation, dividing a normal barrack.

“The jail authorities raised a wall in a normal barrack and then further divided that separated space into three cells to keep those women in isolation,” she says. “The authorities told me they were afraid someone might attack them.”

Jilani feels that blasphemy-accused are more vulnerable than prisoners on death row because they are not even allowed to walk or breathe in fresh air within the jail. “The judges should hear these cases on priority or grant bail to the accused. The courts give bail even in murder cases, so why not here where vulnerability is so high?” she asks.

She also calls for proper monitoring of the accused in many jails where prison rules are violated. According to Jilani, judges should not give time to the complainant’s counsel because if those who lodge cases are not interested in pursuing them the courts should take a decision.

She says the state is responsible for inmates suffering from physical and mental traumas in jails in such situations. “The way forward is to give high priority to such cases and conclude the trials within four months.”

The unending saga of the controversial blasphemy laws and their misuse to settle personal scores has been going on for the past three decades — especially after the promulgation of amendments in the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986 that stipulated stricter sentences. This was the infamous Zia era. The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a non-government organisation working on minorities’ rights, in its reports claim registration of 1470 cases under different blasphemy sections from 1987 to the first half of 2015. While only seven cases of blasphemy were registered in the subcontinent in the entire period between 1927 and 1986. According to NCJP reports, 74 cases were lodged in 2013, 105 in 2014 and four in the first half of 2015.

Senior lawyer, Saiful Malook, tells TNS that the government has completely failed to perform its constitutional duties in terms of providing fundamental rights to its people including provided Article 9 that grants right to life to all people. “It is unfortunate that whenever an allegation of blasphemy is levelled against an individual, the society starts treating the accused as enemy of the religion of Islam. An automatic hatred is developed in the minds of general public.”

Malook, who was also the counsel in former governor Salmaan Taseer’s murder case, thinks that people in jails, whether employed as jail staff or inmates, are a part of the same society. “The state should immediately declare a separate building as a prison for blasphemy-accused with better environment and more educated and trained jail staff. The trial procedure and forms of trial should be amended and the accused should be tried by a high court judge,” he says.

He has a few suggestions to improve the conditions for the accused. “The trial of blasphemy-accused by the session court, practically, amounts to denial of rights of fair trial. Blasphemy must be treated as an offence against state and no private group or individual should be allowed to file a complaint or become a counsel. Provisions of Section 295 clause B and C should also be included in Section 196 of CRPC (Criminal Procedural Code) so that the trial of these offences can not take place without the permission of federal or provincial government.”

Blasphemy trials, generally, are conducted under pressure by the court while the counsels of complainants tactfully delay the proceedings and resist the accused persons’ bail. Sometimes, the judges show hatred towards the accused during the proceedings. In 2000, according to news reports, Justice Mian Nazir Akhtar of Lahore High Court, while hearing a blasphemy case gave a remark, saying that no one had the authority to pardon blasphemy and that anyone accused of blasphemy should be killed on the spot as a religious obligation.

Incidentally, most of the blasphemy cases happen in central Punjab. A senior official of the Punjab’s prisons department says there is no other choice than to keep the accused in separate cells. “Till such time that we have a separate prison — that needs resources that we already lack — the danger is always there. However, there are instructions to keep them — the blasphemy-accused or convicted in high security.”

He says the real issue is the mindset that misuses such laws for its vested interest. “Jails can not be separated from the society.”

This article was published in The News on Sunday on November 1, 2015 with the title Vulnerable, isolated

Waqar Gillani

waqar gillani
The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • Why not establish a special provincial housing unit for prisoners charged with blasphemy, and move those prisoners out of isolation? In California prisons, prisoners who fear gang retaliation were housed on the “mainline” are instead put in a protective unit.

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