MULTAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - Gunmen posing as clients shot dead a prominent human rights lawyer defending a professor accused of blasphemy, officials said Thursday, underscoring the danger facing those trying to put an end to religious intolerance in majority-Muslim Pakistan.
Wednesday’s killing of Rashid Rehman in the southern city Multan of was the first time a lawyer has been killed for taking on a blasphemy case, police said.
Rehman had been representing Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer in English accused by hardline student groups of making blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Mohammed in March last year.
Hafeez had been in prison without being able to find a lawyer until Rehman agreed to represent him in February.
Blasphemy carries the death penalty in Pakistan. The accused are often lynched or languish for years in jail without trial because lawyers are too afraid to defend them. Rights groups say the laws are increasingly used to seize money or property.
Judges have previously been attacked in Pakistan for acquitting blasphemy defendants and two politicians who discussed reforming the law were shot dead.
Rehman was shot dead by two gunmen at his office on Wednesday night. A junior lawyer and an assistant were wounded, police said.
“Rehman was at his office at night when two men came there posing as potential clients, asking for his help with a marriage case,” police officer Shaukat Abbas told Reuters.
“He was shot five times and succumbed to his injuries on the way to hospital.”
On Thursday morning, an unsigned pamphlet was distributed in Multan saying Rehman met his “rightful end” for trying to “save someone who disrespected the Prophet Mohammed”.
“We warn all lawyers to be afraid of god and think twice before engaging in such acts,” the pamphlet said.
Rehman worked for the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). He frequently denounced the repression of Pakistan’s dwindling religious minorities.
Rehman began receiving threats from other lawyers as soon as he took on the case, according to the commission.
“During arguments for acquittal of the accused, three persons addressed defense lawyer Rashid Rehman, in the judge’s presence, and said: ‘You will not come to court next time because you will not exist any more’,” the commission said in April.
HRCP chairwoman Zohra Yusuf said she was devastated.
“We have lost four human rights defenders in the last three years. Others are under constant threat. The state does not even notice,” she said.
At least 16 people are on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy and at least 20 are serving life sentences. Many others are in prison despite not having been convicted.
At least 52 people accused of blasphemy have been lynched since 1990, according to a 2012 report from the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies think tank.
Pakistan has not yet executed anyone for blasphemy but members of religious minorities say they are often threatened with such accusations.
The law does not require evidence to be presented in court and there are no penalties for false allegations. Courts often hesitate to hear evidence, fearful that reproducing it will also be considered blasphemous.
Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Nick Macfie