Lawyers in Pakistan went on strike Thursday to mourn a colleague shot dead for defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy, the latest killing linked to the controversial law.
Gunmen stormed the office of Rashid Rehman in the central city of Multan on Wednesday evening and started firing indiscriminately, killing him and two others in the room.
It is the latest high-profile killing linked to Pakistan’s strict laws against defaming Islam, which rights campaigners say are often used to settle personal disputes.
A prominent provincial governor and a Christian federal minister were assassinated in separate incidents in 2011 for criticising the laws.
Last month a Christian couple were sentenced to death for sending a “blasphemous” text message, with their lawyer suggesting they were framed.
Police official Zulfiqar Ali said that Rehman’s attackers were young men who reached the scene on motorcycle, and made no attempt to conceal their identity using masks.
Rehman, who was about 50 and married without children was pronounced dead in hospital.
He was hit by five bullets including one in the head and one in the heart, according to Doctor Ashiq Malik of the city’s Nishtar Hospital.
“We are observing a strike and no lawyer will appear in any court today to mourn and protest the killing of our colleague,” Sher Zaman Qureshi, president of the District Bar Association Multan, told AFP.
“We demand that the killers of Rashid Rehman should be arrested immediately.”
He added that Rehman had told the association he had received death threats and they had asked the police to provide security, but the request was declined.
“Rashid Rehman had informed us that he was being threatened by various people to stop defending the blasphemy case, otherwise he will be killed,” Qureshi said.
Rehman was representing Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University who is accused of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Mohammed in March last year.
Hafeez was known at the university for his liberal views and the blasphemy case was registered after pressure from right-wing student groups, according to a student who did not wish to be named.
– Rights activist –
An official at the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said that for a year, no lawyer was prepared to take up the case over fears of attacks from extremist religious groups.
But Rehman, who was also a rights activist and coordinator of the HRCP, decided to defend Hafeez.
During the first hearing in March this year, which took place inside a prison for security reasons, Rehman received threats from the complainant’s lawyers.
“During the hearing the lawyers of the complainant told Rehman that he wouldn’t be present at the next hearing as he would not be alive,” said the HRCP in a statement issued after the incident in March.
Rehman was threatened in the presence of the judge, according to the HRCP.
Allah Dad Khan, a friend of Rehman, told AFP the lawyer had taken on hundreds of cases for the poor and needy free of charge.
“He always had a smile at his face when he met people and clients and he used to be very happy when helping the needy,” said Khan.
“He was never afraid of anything and when colleagues and friends asked him not to take sensitive cases he used to reply that one should not be afraid of death, one can die because of mosquito bite,” he added.
The HRCP will also hold a condolence event in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province, on Thursday afternoon.
Pakistan has strict laws against defaming Islam — including the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammed — and rights campaigners say they are often misused to settle personal disputes.
A recent report from a US government advisory panel said Pakistan used blasphemy laws more than any other country in the world, listing 14 people on death row and 19 others serving life sentences for insulting Islam.