PAKISTAN: Saïf ul-Malook, lawyer of the Christian couple sentenced to death for blasphemy
Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Masih, a Pakistani Christian couple, were sentenced to death on April 4th, 2014 under Article 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code.
The married couple was convicted on the grounds that they had sent blasphemous SMS messages in English insulting the Prophet Muhammad to a local imam from a phone number registered under the name of Shagufta Kausar. However, it was established that the couple was illiterate and did not speak English.
The appeal hearing before the Lahore High Court (LHC) was scheduled for Wednesday 3 June but was finally postponed to June 22nd due to the downturn in the proceedings caused by the coronavirus. The couple has spent the last six years in prison awaiting this appeal. Allegations of torture against Shafqat Masih by police officers in prison in order to extract confessions have been reported.
Lawyer Saif ul-Malook, who successfully pleaded Asia Bibi’s case before the Supreme Court, will represent the couple before the LHC. He said in an interview to the BBC that the evidence used to convict the couple was deeply flawed. According to him, the file against Shagufta Kausar and her husband is even weaker than that against Asia Bibi.
Saïf ul-Malook has been involved in a number of emblematic defence cases in Pakistan, including the Asia Bibi case. This young Pakistani Christian woman had been sentenced to death for committing blasphemy.
While no lawyer wanted to get close to the Asia Bibi case, lawyer Saïf ul-Malook decided to defend her before the Pakistani courts. He saved her, in 2019, from being hanged for blasphemy. Asia Bibi, who had been in preventive detention for almost 10 years, was finally allowed to leave Pakistan and arrived in Canada on May 8th, 2019.
Threats against lawyer Saïf ul-Malook
When he obtained Asia Bibi’s acquittal, protests took place across the country. He became the target of threats from religious extremists. He went into exile in the Netherlands in November 2018 after violent protests against the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Asia Bibi’s death sentence.
Notwithstanding the granting of refugee status by the Dutch authorities, Saïf ul-Malook returned to Islamabad on January 26th, 2019 to defend Asia Bibi as she faced a final appeal against the Supreme Court’s decision.
Despite the numerous death threats against him and his family, Saïf ul-Malook has shown immense perseverance and unquestionable courage in defending the persons, whom no one wants to defend.
In an interview to the French newspaper Libération, he said: “When you defend someone accused of blasphemy, you are considered a blasphemer yourself. However, I am only doing my duty under the Constitution and the law, which states that every accused person has the right to have his or her rights respected and to a fair trial”.
The decision that will be rendered during this appeal against the conviction of the Pakistani Christian couple could mean the return of threats and attacks against the lawyer.
The OIAD fully supports the work of Saïf ul-Malook and his efforts to uphold the rights of the defence.
On the occasion of the 10th World Day of the Endangered Lawyer, the Paris Bar and the OIAD welcomed lawyer Saïf ul-Malook. He shared his story and his fight for the respect of the rights of the defence in Pakistan, calling for the support of the international community.
At its session of January 21st 2020, the Council of the Paris Bar unanimously awarded him the status of Honorary Advocate of the Paris Bar for his exceptional defence work.
Background in Pakistan
Pakistan’s anti-blame law is one of the toughest in the world, since it automatically punishes the insult to the Prophet Mohammed with the death penalty. These laws introduced in 1986 into the Pakistani Criminal Code (articles 295 B, 295 C, 298 A, 298 B, 298 C) have the effect of severely restricting freedom of religion and expression.
Lawyers defending persons accused of blasphemy are generally threatened with violence by groups and individuals who want to do justice themselves. The lawyer is then assimilated to the person for whom he/she is in charge of the defence. Pressure from the street and religious leaders is exerted at all levels of the judicial system. Lawyers, judges, police or prosecutors are under intense pressure and live in fear of reprisals. Thus, finding a lawyer who agrees to defend this type of case is a particularly difficult task.