Pakistani lawyer Rashid Rehman murdered after taking on blasphemy case

He knew the risks he was taking. He knew too, that many others had declined to take on the case.

But Rashid Rehman believed that every defendant deserved a lawyer, even - or perhaps especially – someone facing perhaps the most serious allegation that can be levelled at you in Pakistan.

At around 8.30pm on Wednesday evening, Mr Rehman, a well-known advocate and a regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), was shot dead by two gunmen who entered his office in the city of Multan, apparently posing as prospective clients. The attack came just weeks after he agreed to defend a college lecturer accused of blasphemy and had reportedly received death threats from other lawyers for doing so.

“He was a dedicated activist from the very beginning. All his life he was helping the downtrodden,” senior HRCP official Zaman Khan told The Independent. “He was fearless and never gave any time to the threats. He said he would live for the struggle and die for the struggle.”

Earlier this year, Mr Rehman, who was 53 and married, agreed to take on the case of Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University who had been accused of defaming the prophet Mohammed on social media last year. Reports said the accusations were levelled by hardline university students who had pushed for him to be charged.

An injured colleague of slain Pakistani lawyer Rashid Rehman arrives at hospital after an attack by gunmen in Multan An injured colleague of slain Pakistani lawyer Rashid Rehman arrives at hospital after an attack by gunmen in Multan (Getty Images)
The HRCP said no one was wiling to take on Mr Hafeez’s defence until Mr Rehman stepped forward. After the first hearing inside a prison in March, when he was allegedly threatened, the HRCP issued a statement which said: “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.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, introduced under British rule and then tightened during the years of military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, have become increasingly controversial and ever more deadly. Campaigners say that the laws, which carry the death penalty, are routinely used to settle personal scores and grudges that have nothing to do with Islam.

While no-one has ever been executed for blasphemy, many accused have been attacked and killed and lawyers and judges have been threatened. A recent report by a US government advisory panel said there were 14 people on death row in Pakistan and 19 others serving life sentences for insulting Islam.

Among those on death row is a 70-year-old British citizen, Muhammad Asghar, from Edinburgh, who was sentenced in January after being convicted of claiming he was a prophet. His lawyers and family said he has been suffering from mental health issues for several years.

Relatives carry the body of lawyer Rashid Rehman from a hospital following an attack by gunmen in Multan. Lawyers in the central Pakistani city went on strike to mourn their late colleague Relatives carry the body of lawyer Rashid Rehman from a hospital following an attack by gunmen in Multan. Lawyers in the central Pakistani city went on strike to mourn their late colleague (Getty Images)
Efforts to reform the laws by Pakistan’s previous government were scrapped in the aftermath of the murder in January 2011 of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, where Multan is located, who had spoken about the misuse of the laws and the need to reform them. A second politician, the then-minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, who also supported reforming the laws, was murdered two months later.

“This is only a symptom of a deeper malaise [in Pakistan],” said Asma Jahangir, a celebrated advocate who was among those who attended Mr Rehman’s funeral service in Multan. “It is becoming more and more difficult for people who have liberal views to stay alive in this country. And the state sits by like a spectator.”

Today, in an indication of such threats referred to by Ms Jahangir, it was reported that in Multan leaflets had been distributed which claimed Mr Rehman had met his “rightful end”.

“We warn all lawyers to be afraid of god and think twice before engaging in such acts,” the pamphlets said, according to the Reuters news agency.

As Mr Rehman was buried, lawyers in Multan protested over the killing of their colleague. “Every time someone without means approached him for help, he would take his case without considering how mighty the opponent could be,” said Mr Rehman’s junior colleague, Allah Daad. “He was also very fond of reading, but he spent most of his time helping the needy,”

Punjab governor Salman Taseer was murdered in 2011 after calling for reform of laws Punjab governor Salman Taseer was murdered in 2011 after calling for reform of laws (Getty Images)
Mr Daad said that after the prosecuting lawyer involved in the blasphemy case had made the threatening comment, Mr Rehman informed the District Bar Association and sought protection from the local police. Yet he said that Mr Rehman received no response from officers. The police in Multan were unavailable for comment.

Mr Rehman was reportedly struck by five bullets. Two other people in his office at the time were badly wounded and taken to hospital.

The lawyer and activist had no children but he lived in an extended family. His nephew, 24-year-old Atir, and his niece, Hareem, who is 25, said he had been like a father to them. The family now has no source of income. Mr Rehman’s traumatised widow, Robina, has been sedated.

“He never used to tell us anything about the work he was doing but still we came to know about the kind of threats he received,” said Mr Rehman’s niece. “He was a man of devotion and spent his entire life working for the poor.”

She added: “I would ask him to do something for me using his contacts but he said he would always use his contacts for the poor.”

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
News
news
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Sport
football
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?