A Pakistani lawyer and activist who had complained about receiving death threats after he took on a controversial blasphemy case, has been shot dead by gunmen who stormed into his office.
Rashid Rehman was shot and killed by two men who entered his office at 8.30pm on Wednesday in the city of Multan and opened fire. Two others in the office were seriously injured by the gunmen, who then fled.
Mr Rehman, a well-known lawyer and a regional coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said he had been threatened after taking on the case of a university lecturer accused of blasphemy. At the first hearing of the case in March, held inside a prison for security reasons, Mr Rehman was apparently threatened by lawyers representing the complainant.
“He was a dedicated activist from the very beginning. All his life he was helping the downtrodden,” senior HRCP official Zamal 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.”
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. 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, several 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, 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.
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.
Mr Rehman, who had a family, took on the case of Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University who was accused of defaming the prophet Mohammed on social media last year. Reports said the accusations were levelled by hardline students who pushed for him to be charged.
Apparently no one was wiling to take on Mr Hafeez’s defence until Mr Rehman stepped forward. After the hearing 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.”
The HRCP said that Mr Rehman was threatened in the presence of the judge but that the court took no action. After the incident, Mr Rehman complained to the District Bar Association.
Mr Rehman’s colleague, Mr Khan, said the lawyer had also complained to the police but that they had taken no action. “They were totally indifferent.”
Mr Rehman’s funeral service is due to be held in Multan on Thursday afternoon.