Read the press release from IHEU and go for more information
is pleased to announce that Dr Younus Shaikh, who has been languishing in
gaol in Pakistan since October 2000 and in solitary confinement under sentence
of death for blasphemy since August 2001, has been acquitted and freed after
an appeal and retrial.
For the past three years IHEU has led an international campaign to secure
the release of our friend and colleague. Dr Shaikh was declared a Prisoner
of Conscience by Amnesty International, and thousands of people worldwide
lobbied their politicians and the Government of Pakistan on his behalf.
Following his release in the greatest secrecy on 21st November 2003 Younus
Shaikh initially remained in Pakistan but his accusers than lodged an appeal
against his acquittal, and he has now left Pakistan for Europe and safety.
Mohammed Younus Shaikh was born in Chishtian, Pakistan on 30th May 1952.
After High School he studied medicine in Multan where he qualified as a
doctor of medicine, and did post-graduate studies in Dublin and London.
He worked as a trainee surgeon in the United Kingdom from 1981 until 1988.
He returned to Pakistan where he taught at a medical college in Islamabad.
As a Human Rights activist in Pakistan he attracted the attention of the
Islamic fundamentalists. He took part in the Pakistan-India Forum for Peace
and Democracy, and was a member of the South Asian Fraternity, South Asian
Union and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In 1990 he started a
Humanist organisation called The Enlightenment, inspired by
the ideas of the European Enlightenment and Renaissance.
At a meeting of the South Asian Union on 1st October 2000, Younus Shaikh
suggested that, in the interest of the people of Kashmir, the line of control
between the Indian and Pakistani forces should become the international
border. This clearly offended a Pakistani officer who responded by saying
to Dr Shaikh that I will crush the heads of those that talk like this.
On 3rd October Dr Shaikh was suspended by his college without explanation.
Later that evening, an employee of the Pakistani Foreign Office, who was
also one of Dr Shaikhs students, complained to a cleric, saying that
on 2nd October in a lecture between 12:00 noon and 12:40 pm, the doctor
had made blasphemous remarks about the Prophet of Islam. The cleric filed
a complaint with the police. Younus Shaikh was arrested on the evening of
4th October and charged with blasphemy.
Trial and Acquittal
Those accused of blasphemy under Article 295/C of the Pakistan Penal Code
are unable to obtain bail and are held in custody awaiting trial. If pronounced
guilty, they face a mandatory death sentence. The trial of Dr Shaikh, held
throughout the summer of 2001, took place in a hostile courtroom packed
with Islamic fundamentalists who warned the defence lawyers: think
of your families and children. The final two sessions were held in-camera
with gun-toting Pakistani Taliban waiting outside. It was finally established
during the trial that the alleged events had never taken place. Nevertheless,
on 18th August 2001, Dr Shaikh was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Sadly, in Pakistan, such injustices are not uncommon in cases of alleged
For the next two years, Dr Shaikh was held in solitary confinement in a
death cell in the Central Gaol in Rawalpindi. He appealed to the High Court
but the two appeal court judges failed to agree. On 15th July 2002 the case
was referred to a senior judge for a final decision.
A delay of more than a year then ensued before the referee judge took up
the case. On October 9th 2003, this judge finally decided that the original
judgement was unsound but instead of acquitting Dr Shaikh, remanded the
case back to a lower court for retrial.
The retrial was held over three sessions in November 2003. In the light
of the harassment and intimidation suffered by his lawyers at the earlier
hearings, and much against the advice of the judge, his colleagues, his
family and the members of the diplomatic community present in court, Dr
Shaikh decided this time to conduct his own defence. The prosecuting counsel
tried to exploit the religious feelings of the court but Dr Shaikh confined
his defence to legal arguments and was finally acquitted on 21st November.
He tells us that he was inspired by the defence speech of Sir Thomas More
in A Man for All Seasons. Fortunately for Dr Shaikh the outcome
this time was different.
Commenting on the judgement, Dr Shaikh explained: The judge accepted
my legal arguments and found the charges against me to be baseless. My accusers,
two Mullahs and some Islamist students, had lied. He described his
ordeal as: Islamic terrorism through the abuse of law and of the state
Escape to Freedom
Dr Shaikh was released from the gaol in great secrecy, was offered, but
refused, a police bodyguard, and went into hiding for several weeks, meeting
family and friends and even participating, incognito, in a debate on Human
Rights. He has now left Pakistan for Europe.
Many victims of the Pakistani blasphemy laws have failed to survive prison,
and a number of those tried and acquitted have been murdered following their
release. As recently as July 2002, Mohammed Yousaf was shot dead inside
the Central Gaol in Lahore while awaiting his appeal. On 7th February 2003,
Mushtaq Zafar, a 55 year-old man accused of blasphemy was shot dead on his
way home from the High Court. And in June 2003, Naseem Bibi, 35, who had
been the victim of a gang rape by police, was charged with blasphemy,
and was murdered in prison before her trial could begin.
Even the legal profession are not immune from attack. Defence lawyers have
been intimidated by fundamentalists and even a High Court judge was murdered
after acquitting an accused.
This week, one of Dr Shaikhs supporters, speaking anonymously from
may draw some satisfaction and may even feel like celebrating that
our efforts in pursuing this case led to the acquittal of Dr. Shaikh,
but let's not forget that as long as the Blasphemy law is on the statute
book, it will continue to be misused. At this very moment there are several
innocent people, victims of this black law, languishing in various
jails and lock-ups of the country awaiting an uncertain future. And these
victims may not be as fortunate as Dr. Shaikh was. Dr. Shaikh had a circle
of committed friends inside and outside the country.
is also a sad reflection on the state and society of Pakistan that
even when individuals are exonerated by law of any guilt, they
are forced to flee the country for their safety. The state or society
is unable or unwilling to provide them protection. Dr. Shaikh was not at
all eager to leave the country. If he had a choice he would have stayed
with his family and friends. I could see his reluctance to leave the country
written large on his face when I accompanied him to the airport.
bottom line is that we must continue our campaign until this draconian law,
along with similar other medieval laws, is undone or at least modified to
save the innocent people from its abuse.
Pakistans infamous blasphemy laws are widely abused to make false
accusations against both Muslims and members of religious minorities, such
as Christians and Ahmadis, as well as innocent business rivals and political
opponents. Those accused under the blasphemy laws are immediately imprisoned
with no effective right to bail. If pronounced guilty, they face a mandatory
death sentence. It is estimated that over 100 victims of Pakistans
medieval blasphemy laws are currently in prison either awaiting trial or
already under sentence of death.
The international Humanist community calls upon President Parvez Musharraf
and the Pakistani Parliament to immediately abolish these profoundly unjust
laws an ugly stain on the reputation of the nation and people of
IHEU London 23rd January 2004