The high price of being a lawyer in Pakistan

RehmanBy LSS member Sadikur Rahman *

As a lawyer it’s always humbling to see what other lawyers around the world have to deal with in their working lives.

The worst that can happen to a lawyer in the UK is that he or she might get a sneering and condescending riposte from an opponent in a case, suggesting the need to go back to law school or some other cheap playground insult. If you do something fraudulent you might get struck off. In Pakistan, however, the stakes are a little higher: it’s a matter of life and death.

Mr. Rashid Rehman, a Pakistani lawyer, was killed for simply agreeing to defend a college lecturer who had been accused of blasphemy. Most lawyers would agree that everyone has the right to a defence, and this is what Mr. Rehman believed. His murderers did not. The image in this post is of Rashid Rehman’s relatives carrying his body after the attack. He was shot five times and died on his way to hospital.

The person he was defending had been accused of defaming the prophet Mohammed. Section 295 C of the Pakistani Penal Code makes it a criminal offence to use derogatory remarks in respect of the prophet. The offence is punishable by death, having been amended in 1991 to remove the option for life imprisonment.

Rehman’s bravery in choosing to take on the case was extraordinary when one considers that no-one else had been willing to do so for fear of harassment and death threats, and Rehman would have known full well that two high-profile campaigners for a change to Pakistan’s deadly blasphemy laws – Salman Taseer and Shabaaz Bhatti – had been murdered in previous years.

In January of this year Muhammad Asghar, a 70-year old British man, was convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan and sentenced to death. Mr. Asghar had sent letters declaring himself a prophet. Despite it being well known that he had a history of mental illness a medical panel rejected calls for leniency and passed the death sentence. He remains in prison. And although no-one should be subjected to such treatment for doing something so harmless, in the context of someone suffering mental illness it is all the more disturbing.

Given the dangers facing anyone connected to these blasphemy cases, I’m sure I speak for all my LSS colleagues in honouring the bravery and courage of Rashid Rehman. Let’s also not forget that his death has left the defendant in this case without representation, and still facing the death penalty. In the current climate it will be another extraordinarily brave lawyer who decides to take on the case.

* Sadikur Rahman was an LSS member from May 2013 to Jul 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

Image credit above: AFP/Getty Images

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