Academic Freedom in Pakistan is Under Threat

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The recent killing of the lawyer and human rights activist Rashid Rehman who received repeated death threats for defending blasphemy accused lecturer of Bahauddin Zakariya University, Junaid Hafeez, has raised up wider apprehensions about academic freedom in Pakistan.

Pakistani people held demonstrations against lawyers killing
Pakistani people held demonstrations against lawyers killing

In reaction to the killing in Multan on 7 May, the Scholars at Risk Network in New York gave out a statement. It says, “Rehman had taken up the case in 2013 when previous defense counsel withdrew after similar threats” and it then goes on to highlight the worries upraised by the assassination.

The network says, “In addition to the deprivation of the right to life of the victim and harms to the others injured, their families and associates, an attack on defense counsel deprives defendants of due process and a fair trial.”

It further added, “Where the defendant is a scholar detained for nonviolent expressive activity, as in this case, an attack on defense counsel also undermines academic freedom by denying the scholar a full and fair defense and sending a message of intimidation throughout the university community and society.”

In a 2014 report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (of which the Scholars at Risk Network is a member), Education Under Attack, Pakistan is mentioned as one of the six most “heavily affected” countries for violence against schools and universities. Hundreds of attacks were recognized and one student and four academics were killed between 2009 and 2012.

Scholars at Risk’s director of protection services, Clare Robinson, pointed out that the network had recorded three other attacks on higher education since November: a Shia imam, professor at Hashmat Ali College, killed by anonymous gunmen; a “progressive-minded” shia professor at the University of Gujrat shot dead with his driver while traveling to work; and a first-year student at Khyber Medical College allegedly harassed and assaulted by an academic for wearing a face veil.

Campaigners argue that Pakistan’s strict laws against blasphemy, which theoretically carry the death penalty, are repeatedly manipulated to settle personal disputes or used by conservatives to silent liberals.

Ms Robinson agreed, “We have seen a handful of recent cases regarding blasphemy which risk eroding the rule of law.”