Independent UN human rights experts condemned on Friday the death sentence of a university lecturer charged with blasphemy in Pakistan, calling the ruling "a travesty of justice".
Thirty-three-year-old Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, was sentenced to death – despite last year’s landmark Supreme Court ruling in which Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was tried and condemned to hang for blasphemy but was later acquitted.
"The Supreme Court ruling in the Asia Bibi case should have set a precedent for lower courts to dismiss any blasphemy case that has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt," the experts said.
Moreover, they raised concerns in an urgent appeal to the Government over the legal merits of the case
"In the light of this ruling, the guilty verdict against Mr. Hafeez is a travesty of justice, and we condemn the death sentence imposed on him”, spelled out the independent experts.
“We urge Pakistan's superior courts to promptly hear his appeal, overturn the death sentence and acquit him."
International law permits the death penalty only in exceptional circumstances, and requires incontrovertible evidence of intentional murder, the experts noted.
"The death sentence imposed on Mr. Hafeez has no basis in either law or evidence, and therefore contravenes international law”, they continued, adding that “carrying out the sentence would amount to an arbitrary killing," they said.
They expressed their serious concern that blasphemy charges are still being brought against people “legitimately exercising their rights to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and expression".
Prolonged solitary confinement
Mr. Hafeez was arrested on 13 March 2013 and charged for allegedly making blasphemous remarks during lectures and on his Facebook account.
Carrying out the sentence would amount to an arbitrary killing – UN experts
He has been in solitary confinement since his trial began in 2014, seriously affecting his mental and physical health. The death sentence was imposed by a district and sessions court in Multan on 21 December 2019.
"Prolonged solitary confinement may well amount to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," the experts said.
Mr. Hafeez's case has gone through lengthy trials in Multan, with the prosecution failing to provide convincing evidence of his guilt, they pointed out, while also noting that “some documentary evidence submitted to the court was never subjected to independent forensic review despite allegations it had been fabricated, and that a lawyer representing Mr. Hafeez in 2014, Rashid Rehman, was murdered and the killers have not been brought to justice”.
"There seems to be a climate of fear among members of the judiciary handling this case, which may explain why at least seven judges were transferred during this lengthy trial", the UN experts concluded.
The independent experts are the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and members of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.