Junaid Hafeez, a Pakistani Fulbright scholar, was motivated to serve his people when he joined a government university in an impoverished central region after returning from the United States a decade ago.
Instead, he now faces a sentence of death by hanging after a lower court convicted him of blasphemy under a draconian Pakistani law.
While Hafeez, 33, languishes in solitary confinement as his case moves through appeals in the courts, his family live as outcasts in the society. Their livelihoods, reputation, and relations with their communities have never been the same since Hafeez was first arrested in 2013 on what family and rights campaigners say were trumped-up charges.
Across Pakistan, hundreds of families of people accused of committing blasphemy face similar problems.
“I can’t recall a single day during the past six years when I or my wife have participated in a marriage or funeral ceremony,” Hafeez Al-Naseer told Radio Mashaal as he reflected on how his son’s arrest practically excommunicated them from their community in Rajanpur, a rural district in the eastern province of Punjab.
Al-Naseer has spent some $65,000 on lawyer fees and other expenses related to his son’s case. His business of arranging pilgrimage trips to Saudi Arabia has come to a standstill. This has deprived his family of more than $600,000 in annual income. “After my son was accused of blasphemy, people told me that we too are infidels and they stopped giving us business,” he said. His printing press has also stopped.
Blasphemy allegations are often so damaging that their effects linger even after they are proved wrong or it is established that they were prompted by political interests or personal vendettas.
Ahmad Waqas Goraya, a Pakistani blogger and IT expert exiled in the Netherlands, says his family is still reeling from the effects of false blasphemy accusations leveled against him during government detention. He says that along with four other bloggers, he was picked up by the country’s secret service in January 2017 and was freed after relentless protests by rights campaigners. Pakistani spy services and the military deny engaging in forced disappearances or indefinite detentions.
Goraya says that after his release, he realized that he and other detained bloggers were accused of blasphemy through a campaign on social media platforms and fake news on some television stations.
“[During my detention] our neighbors and relatives urged my father to hold a press conference to dissociate me from his family or else he was in danger of being killed,” he told Radio Mashaal.
Goraya says that after their release, students associated with the hard-line Red Mosque in Islamabad lodged a blasphemy court case against them. The case was finally thrown out after a police investigation established before the court that the blasphemy accusations were unfounded.
Asim Saeed, one of the bloggers detained alongside Goraya, says the blasphemy accusations even followed him in exile in London.
“Some expatriate Pakistanis in London can be more fanatical than the folks back home,” he told Radio Mashaal. “So, when I arrived in London, I avoided going out of my home during daytime.”
While Saeed and Goraya largely feel safe in exile, their relatives back home continued to face threats, taunts, and economic ruin. Such pressures forced Goraya’s parents and siblings to ultimately join him in exile. They failed to find any security after moving house several times.
Saeed’s family, however, braved a brazen attack on their house in the eastern city of Lahore.
“Some young men from among our neighborhood attempted to kill my relatives by shooting at our house,” he said. “Local clerics and community leaders intervened. When they asked attackers for evidence to establish my alleged blasphemy, they said that they did not have evidence, but they had heard these allegations on TV and that TV cannot lie.”
Iqbal Khan’s son Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old university student, was killed by a campus mob in April 2017 after they accused him of blasphemy. The killing at Abdul Wali Khan University in the northwestern Mardan district shocked Pakistan, and Khan’s family is still reeling from its aftermath.
Khan says the cleric in their village refused to offer funeral prayers and dissuaded villagers from participating in his son’s funeral. The villagers, however, apologized and participated in his son’s funeral after learning the truth. Fear prevented Mashal Khan’s sisters from going to college for nearly a year and a half after his killing. Iqbal Khan has lost most of his business since his son’s killing.
Rights campaigners in Pakistan say that blasphemy accusations are often prompted by disputes or a way to get back on a business or political rival. Pakistan’s non-Muslim religious minorities are particularly vulnerable to blasphemy accusations. Even commenting on blasphemy cases or offering legal help to victims can prompt threats and violence. Hafeez’s first lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was shot dead in 2014 soon after taking his case.
Pakistan inherited blasphemy laws from British India in 1947. These laws stipulated multiyear prison sentences. But the military governments of General Zia-ul Haq added a number of clauses in the 1980s, which introduced the death penalty or life imprisonment for blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad or “willful” desecration of the Islamic holy book, Koran.
While Pakistan has not executed anyone for blasphemy, currently 40 people are on death row on related charges. The Center for Social Justice, a Pakistani nongovernmental organization, estimates that more than 1,500 people were accused of blasphemy during the three decades from 1987 to 2017.