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Pakistan is using its blasphemy code to silence opponents

Although no one has been executed, it has become a means of terrorising Pakistan’s remaining liberal voices

The murder this week of Rashid Rehman, a human rights lawyer, draws attention once again to the dangerous fragility of the Pakistani state. Mr Rehman was defending Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer charged with blasphemy after the student wing of a religious political party accused him of insulting the Prophet Mohamed.

Pakistan’s original blasphemy law carried a maximum prison sentence of two years. It was under the rule of the military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq that the law was given a specifically Islamic complexion, carrying a mandatory sentence of either life in prison or death. The secularly inclined strongman Pervez Musharraf tried to abolish it but was unable to prevail against the religious establishment. This pernicious law remains on the books.

Although no one has been executed, it has become a means of terrorising Pakistan’s remaining liberal voices – honourable exceptions include Mr Rehman and his formidable colleague on the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Asma Jehangir – into silence and inactivity. Among those on death row is a 70-year-old British citizen, Muhammad Asghar, whose cause this newspaper has championed. He was sentenced in January after being convicted of claiming he was a prophet. His lawyers and family say he has been suffering from mental health problems for several years.

Rashid Rehman had no illusions about the risks he ran in defending Mr Hafeez. In court, three men, two of them allegedly lawyers, shouted out that this would be his last court appearance because next time “you will not exist any more”. Citing this, Mr Rehman asked for protection, but the police failed to provide it.

Secular liberals have bawled themselves hoarse about the dangers posed by the sort of fanatics who killed Mr Rehman. The time is long overdue for their voices to be joined by those of the many devout Muslims who understand that intolerance, intimidation and cold-blooded murder have no place in their religion. The world is waiting.