One of the most controversial events following the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges was without a doubt county clerk Kim Davis’ refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Rowan County, Kentucky. Davis, after defying a federal court order to issue marriage licenses, spent five days in jail for refusing to carry out her duties as a county clerk. Upon release, she was greeted by a throng of supporters, one of which was presidential hopeful and former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, who later called her imprisonment the “criminalization of Christianity”. I was reminded of Mr. Huckabee’s statement during the Reiff Center’s hosting of Mr. Parvez Aslam Choudhry, a human rights lawyer from Pakistan who provides legal aid to marginalized minorities, especially in regards to the blasphemy law that is mainly used against Christians. We in the United States should count ourselves fortunate that our government strives to protect our freedom of religion. Even though there are divisive topics such as abortion and gay marriage that some view as an attack on their religious values, in the eyes of the law, no citizen is discriminated against based on what religion they choose to observe. This is not the case in Pakistan.
Mr. Choudhry’s remarkable story is one of bravery in the face of death threats and assassinations attempts and enduring devotion to a cause, which he believes is worth the mortal danger. For his works, this remarkable altruist has been nominated for the human rights award by the European Union Bar Association. He has also been nominated for other numerous international human rights awards.
Section 295 of the Pakistani Penal Code prohibits blasphemy, which can either occur by deliberately outraging religious feelings, defiling the Holy Qur’an, or defiling the sacred name of the Prophet Muhammad. In Pakistan, it is very easy to accuse another person of blasphemy, and often, according to Mr. Choudhry, this is done with the intent of seizing property of the accused. To be fair, the Blasphemy Laws are not solely against Christians. However, critics say that minorities figure prominently in the cases and that the laws are unfairly applied, often being used to “settle personal scores and have little or nothing to do with religion”. The law has also been unjustly used by men retaliating against women for denying a sexual relationship.
One such example of this law being abused was in 1996, when Ayub Masih, a Pakistani Christian, was accused by his Muslim neighbor of referring him to read a satanic book and for saying that Christianity was “correct”. Mr. Masih went on trial, the entire Christian population of his village was evacuated, and the neighbor received the property. Previously, a Pakistani court judge had been murdered for acquitting two men of blasphemy. When Mr. Masih went to trial, extremists threatened the sitting judge with death if he did not convict the defendant. Mr. Masih was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Only in 2002 were his charges dropped because of outside pressure from the United States, the United Nations, and Freedom Now. The Pakistani Supreme Court concluded that the previous ruling on Mr. Masih had been in violation of his due process rights and that the blasphemy accusations had been fabricated for the neighbor’s personal gain.
Mr. Choudhry has been taking up blasphemy cases since 1999. Like other cases, a man wanted a Christian pastor’s property, so he accused him of blasphemy, and the pastor was convicted by the high court. The pastor filed a bail application, which was received by Mr. Choudhry, who challenged the high court in its judgment. Mr. Choudhry was successful in his efforts, and the case was overturned. This was the first blasphemy case where judgment was overturned, and although the media did not publish the decision, it was published in legal books. This caused Mr. Choudhry to become very prominent amongst his legal peers.
However, this success has not been without peril. In Pakistan, there is no security provided for the judiciary and the defense attorneys during a trial. Mr. Choudhry has inquired for protection, but his requests have never become law. As a result, Mr. Choudhry has experienced harassment from extremists, both political and religious. He has received multiple death threats during his cases, and has had a gun held to his head by someone who claimed that he was a blasphemer and a Christian lawyer. In 2006, a Muslim extremist driving a truck hit his car. His car fell 40 feet down from the highway, and his Muslim friend attorney died on the spot. Mr. Choudhry sustained life-threatening injuries, but survived, and continued his work, fighting against injustice in the Pakistani state.
These death threats escalated, and in 2010, after completing an argument in the Waji-Ul-Hassan blasphemy case, Pakistani mullahs declared that Mr. Choudhry and his family were guilty of blasphemy and should be put to death. The following year, Sulemam Dasseer, the governor of Punjab, was assassinated in Islamabad by his security guard for suggesting that the blasphemy law was targeting religious minorities and should be changed. One month later, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Religious Minorities Minister who decried the laws, was shot dead in Islamabad. Mr. Choudhry knew that he was next in line to be killed, and that he had to get out. With the help of the Danish government, Mr. Choudhry left Pakistan for Bangkok and lived there for two years as a refugee before coming to the United States in 2013.
Now, Mr. Choudhry continues his work through online communication as a legal counselor to people in Pakistan. Still, the blasphemy laws in Pakistan have not been amended, and individuals continue to be tried with little to no hard evidence. To modify this, Mr. Choudhry suggests that if these laws can not be overturned, then an amendment should be added, stating that if the blasphemy allegations were proven
false, then they would be applied to the person guilty of the accusation. This would not relieve the pressure extremists apply to judges to carry out death sentences to those accused, however. Going one step further, Mr. Choudhry believes that if the process was overseen by the military then pressure on civil judges would be alleviated. Mr. Choudhry now works with the United States government in the hopes that the State Department will pressure that Pakistani government to overturn, or at least amend, the blasphemy laws.
In concluding his talk, Mr. Choudhry expressed his strong belief that the young generation, my generation, is the hope of humanity. We have the potential to challenge these unfair practices and other injustices around the world. We are blessed like no young generation before with such easy access to information. The world has gotten much smaller, and unfair practices are more out in the open. Mr. Choudhry’s career has been possible, he said, because he was passionate about defending those unfairly accused of blasphemy, and that this same passion and commitment to a cause you believe is just is required in whatever occupation you set out to do. If you can exert this passion and commitment in your work, than you can help change things for the better.
On behalf of the Reiff Center, I would like to thank Mr. Choudhry coming to Christopher Newport University and for sharing his inspirational story to the students and faculty. I believe that each and every one of us can apply his example of bravery and commitment to our lives, and go out into the world to make it a better place.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.