Rashid Rehman, a human rights lawyer, was shot dead in his office on Wednesday by gunmen who entered the premises pretending to be clients. The killing, though terrible, was not surprising. Rehman worked for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and was assigned to defend people charged under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. The New York Times reports:
Zulfikar Ali, a senior police officer, said Mr. Rehman had received death threats in open court on April 9 for his work on a blasphemy case. Mr. Ali said initial investigations into the shooting would focus on that link. […]“You will not come to court next time because you will not exist anymore,” one of the men shouted, according to a statement by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan that described the trial as a “charade.”Mr. Rehman drew the judge’s attention to the threats, but no action was taken. The Human Rights Commission demanded that the men, said to include two lawyers, be prosecuted, and that the police provide additional security for Mr. Rehman.
Being accused of blasphemy amounts to a death sentence in Pakistan. Anyone can be charged, from poor Christian girls to the governor of Punjab himself—he was shot by his own bodyguard, who received a hero’s welcome at his murder trial. Charges of blasphemy hardly ever go to court, but the accused are lynched, murdered, imprisoned indefinitely (ironically for their own safety), or, if they are lucky, bundled out of the country.The impunity with which the killers operate is indicative of Pakistan’s drift toward extremism. Just recently, a militant cleric opened the Martyred Osama bin Laden Library in an affluent neighborhood in Islamabad, a stone’s throw away from parliament. The cleric, despite being part of a bloody uprising, now receives patronage from the state, which wants to exploit his alleged links to the Taliban.The Pakistani state has long used militant Islam as a tool of foreign and domestic policy, but it is human rights activists, religious minorities, and secular Pakistanis—people like Rehman—who continue to pay a heavy price for that strategy.