Lynching Of Student Fuels Debate Over Blasphemy Law In Pakistan

Following a fortnight of social uproar in Pakistan in response to the lynching of a university student, Mashal Khan, police have arrested his suspected shooter. Identifying as Imran, the suspect confessed to the shooting of his classmate, Mashal, on Thursday. Both were students of journalism at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan (AWKUM), the institute that served as the nucleus for the brutality committed against Mashal. Mashal was an outspoken individual and, just days before his death, he had aired on local television criticizing the administrative management of the university due to its alleged embezzlement of funds. On April 13, allegations of blasphemy against Mashal led to his inhumane lynching, which was instigated and executed by employees and students of the university that he attended. Taken from his dormitory, Mashal was stripped and beaten by a mob before being shot twice.

The blasphemy law, which was first implemented in Pakistan in 1986, prohibits blasphemous speech, actions, or gestures, and provides severe repercussions for anyone who engages in such conduct ranging from a fine to life imprisonment or the death sentence. Problematically, the broad and ambiguous wording of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) invites the abuse of its legislation regarding blasphemy and renders the law a dangerous one. As opposed to those accused of blasphemy undergoing a fair trial in court, they are often subject to local brutality. The law is often used to settle personal scores, justify the aggressive intentions of the perpetrator, and vindicate their execution of violence on the accused. Following a report published by Amnesty International in December 2016, Audrey Gaughran, the Director of Global Issues of the organization stated that “there is overwhelming evidence that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws violate human rights and encourage people to take the law into their own hands.” She shed further light on the unsettling realities of the law, commenting that “once a person is accused, they become ensnared in a system that offers them few protections, presumes them guilty, and fails to safeguard them against people willing to use violence.”

According to the Human Rights Watch, 60 people have been murdered, 17 are on death row, and 19 are serving life sentences after having been accused of blasphemy since 1990. Implementing one of the most rigorous blasphemy laws in the world, the gravity of allegations of blasphemy in Pakistan is immense. That it took the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, two days to condemn the lynching of Mashal is demonstrative of the way in which the law is understood. Seemingly, a “guilty until proven innocent” approach is adopted whereby the accused must be held accountable, despite how little evidence there may be to prove it. In turn, pressure on the police, lawyers, and judges is intensified and inhibits their ability to carry out their duties impartially and free of fear. Indeed, in 2014, human rights lawyer and legal representative of those accused of blasphemy, Rashid Rehman, was shot dead in his own office by two gunmen, who still remain unidentified. The social stigma attached to blasphemy compromises the right to a fair trial for the defendant and, if acquitted, threatens their safety with many having to flee the country or go into hiding to prevent being the subject of vigilantism.

To date, the accusations of blasphemy directed towards Mashal Khan remain unfounded, thereby casting doubt on the validity of the alleged offence, which has prompted speculation surrounding why the student was so brutally murdered by his peers and educators. With the highest seat of learning as home to the lynching of a student, the oft-assumed status of higher education as a facilitator of liberal and progressive thought is severely undermined. Further, the common association of the study and practice of journalism with freedom of speech and independence lies incongruously with the acts of violence committed by, and to, students of the profession, painting a despairing image of repression and inhumanity in the arena of supposed free thought. Whilst it remains to be seen whether the public furore, which followed Mashal’s killing, has the power to instigate an investigation into repealing the law, therein lies hope. The voice of one may have been silenced, but the collective response is loud: under no law can the barbaric murder of Mashal Khan be justified. To quote Mashal’s father, “the writ of the government has itself been challenged” and, with this, comes the opportunity for change.