Sentenced to death for blasphemy: Surviving Pakistan's death row
Islamabad, Pakistan – After spending almost half of his life on death row, Wajeeh-ul-Hassan had given up hope that he would ever be freed.
Convicted of committing blasphemy and sentenced to death by a court in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore in 2002 – when he was 25 – he spent almost 19 years in jail in a country where the crime of insulting Islam, its Prophet Muhammad or its holy book, the Quran, has been at the centre of alleged rights abuses for decades.
The crime carries punishments ranging from fines to life imprisonment and, in the case of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, a mandatory death sentence.
But many cases do not even get to court. According to an Al Jazeera tally, at least 75 people have been extra-judicially killed in connection with blasphemy allegations since 1990.
They include people accused of blasphemy, their family members, their lawyers, a judge, as well as a serving federal minister and a provincial governor who supported the right of one of the accused to a fair trial.
From the moment he was accused in 1999, Hassan says he faced beatings, abduction, torture, rape and a forced confession.
In 2018, however, after years of darkness, Hassan finally saw a glimmer of hope.
Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in what was the most high-profile blasphemy case in the country’s history, was acquitted by the Supreme Court in October that year.
Hassan was amazed by the acquittal and wondered: Could that same brave judge save him too?
This is Hassan’s story.
Part 1: The accusation
Hassan was born into a working-class family in the small town of Kot Abdul Malik, on the outskirts of Pakistan’s second city of Lahore, to parents who struggled to raise him and his nine siblings. The eldest of three sons, he was the first in the family to go to university but was forced to drop out when the private college he was attending became insolvent and shut down.
“My father told me that he could no longer financially support my education,” says Hassan.
Still in his teens, he continued to study for his board examinations on his own, teaching himself accountancy, banking and finance so that he could get his intermediate degree and fulfil his dream of becoming a civil servant.
“I won’t lie to you, I wanted to become a civil servant because it would allow me to live a good life,” he says. “It was not necessarily for the good of the nation, I wanted it to erase my own poverty.”
Money had always been tight around the Hassan household. The 10 siblings lived with their parents in a small house, barely managing to make ends meet.
Eventually, his father prevailed upon him to put his studies on hold and get a full-time job. Aged 17, Hassan took a job as an office assistant at Hala Enterprises, a Lahore-based textile company where his father had been working for years.
Hala was owned by Mian Tahir Jehangir, the husband of Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan’s foremost human rights lawyers. An award-winning activist, Jehangir had defended blasphemy convicts and fought cases pro-bono for victims of other rights abuses for years.
Like many family-run businesses in Pakistan, Hala’s operations were run out of an office adjacent to the owners’ residence, in the Gulberg area of Lahore.
In 1994, the Jehangirs’ home-office was attacked in connection with the blasphemy case of Salamat, Manzoor and Rehmat Masih, three Christian men. (Earlier, in April 1994, Manzoor, 38, had been shot dead while exiting court after a hearing in the case.)
“A number of bullets hit the office, lodged in the doors or in the trees,” says Hassan, of what he saw when he arrived at work the day after the attack. “I was very afraid.”
Hassan stuck it out at Hala, but left the job in 1998 under a cloud of suspicion following a robbery in which thieves stole more than 380,000 rupees (about $8,400) of company funds from his possession as he was returning from the bank.
Desperate for work, Hassan found himself at the door of two brothers – Muhammad Wasim and Muhammad Naveed – upon whose testimony he would end up spending much of the next 20 years in prison.
Wasim and Naveed ran a steel foundry, Crown Steel, on the outskirts of Lahore.
“In the beginning, they didn’t say anything. But slowly, they would begin to ask about Asma Jehangir and my own religious views,” says Hassan.
Within weeks of starting work at the foundry, the brothers told Hassan they wanted to accuse Jehangir of committing blasphemy so that they could pressure her family in connection with giving up ownership of a valuable piece of commercial property on Lahore’s Brandreth Road, where the brothers also rented a shop.
The property was owned by the Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at-e-Islam Lahore, a welfare organisation run by the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, with whom Asma Jehangir’s father-in-law, Fazl-i-Ahmad, was associated, her family told Al Jazeera.
“There were some people who were forcibly trying to take over the property,” said Mian Tahir Jehangir, the owner of Hala Enterprises. He was, however, he said, unaware of the use of any blasphemy cases to pressure his family in this regard.
“When I refused to [implicate the Jehangirs], then they tortured me and they made me write those letters that they used as evidence against me,” says Hassan.
The letters were at the centre of Hassan’s case. He was accused of writing “blasphemous” letters in which he insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and the Islamic faith while claiming to have converted to Christianity under the name of “Murshid Masih”.
The letters – not carrying his real name – were then sent to Ismail Qureshi, a prominent lawyer and proponent of the blasphemy laws who had represented the prosecution in the case against Salamat, Manzoor and Rehmat Masih. In 1991, it had been a petition by Qureshi that, along with pressure from the country’s far-right religious parties, forced the courts to change the blasphemy laws so that they carried a mandatory death penalty for those convicted of insulting the prophet.
Over the next year, Hassan says, the brothers attempted to use the letters as leverage to get him to testify against Jehangir. They wanted him to say that she had either written them herself or forced him to write them. If he did not, they threatened to tell Qureshi that he, Hassan, was the letter writer, opening him up to prosecution for blasphemy.
Hassan was trapped. When he told his family he had been forced to write the letters, his father cast him out, filing legal papers to declare that he was no longer his son. His mother pleaded his case, he says, but his father felt the risk to the family was too great, and threw him out of the house.
“He was very fearful that the [family] home may be burned to the ground, or that they themselves could be attacked or killed,” he says. “I felt helpless, like I was completely alone in the world.”
With nowhere else to go, he started living on the premises of the steel foundry, where the two brothers continued to pressure him to implicate Jehangir.
“They fired bullets from a pistol all around my feet,” he says, gesturing to the area around his shoes. “They beat me with a glass bottle, the kind that you used to get soft drinks in. They hit my back so hard with a stick that was this thick,” he continues, gesturing to indicate something roughly the girth of a baseball bat.
“They would cover my face with a cloth and tie my hands behind me. They would hit my feet [and my head]. My feet and mouth would start bleeding. It was extreme torture.
“They said if you leave this job, or try to tell anyone, we will murder you and your family.”
Part 2: The arrest
In March 1999, Ismail Qureshi filed a police report saying he had received “blasphemous” letters from a man named “Murshid Masih”, a Muslim convert to Christianity who had abused the prophet and Islamic teachings.
Hassan had not yet been named as the letters’ writer, but knew that at any moment the brothers could expose him.
“Twenty-four hours a day, I was in their custody. I had no place to live, no other source of earning, so I could not go to the police against them. They controlled [everything],” he says.
But neither could he accede to their demand that he implicate Jehangir.
“I had one compulsion in all this … my father still worked [for the Jehangirs], and it was my parents’ only source of earning, that job with Asma Jehangir. If I gave a statement against her, then maybe I would have gotten rid of these people, but then Madam Asma would have become our enemy.”
“The problems that Asma Bibi would have created for us, we would not have been able to handle them, as a family. She was a very powerful woman. She might not have lost anything, but we would have lost everything.”
Trapped between two wealthy families, both with the power to control his family’s destiny, Hassan continued to work at the foundry for almost three years, until 2001.
It was then that, racked by anxiety and guilt at having penned them at all, even though it was under duress, Hassan decided to turn to religion to repent.
In January, he joined the Tableeghi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary organisation that proselytises around the world, seeking salvation.
“I told [the brothers – Wasim and Naveed] that I am going to join the Tableeghi Jamaat, that I am going to ask for forgiveness from Allah, and that I will not complain against them or do anything against them,” he recalls. “That the issue was finished from my side.”
He spent four months with the group at its headquarters in Raiwind, just outside Lahore, devoting his time to reading the Quran and other holy texts, praying and performing rituals of repentance.
“I felt like I was a sinner, because I had physically written those letters, so I wanted to repent for it and to ask for forgiveness. I would pray with tears in my eyes during my time there.”
Four months later, his stint with the Jamaat completed, he returned to Lahore feeling cleansed. Wasim and Naveed called him to meet them, offering him his old job back.
Hassan says he wanted nothing to do with them, and agreed to meet only to convey that he wanted to put the whole episode behind him.
The brothers, however, had other ideas, he says. He was abducted from the meeting, taken to a second location, held down and beaten for hours. This was the brothers’ exit strategy from the whole affair: to pin the letters on him, leaving Jehangir out of it entirely, and to tie a neat bow on the whole episode for the police.
“They made me write yet another account. It was meant to be a confession statement, saying that I had converted to becoming a [member of the Ahmadi sect, considered non-Muslim under Pakistani law], and that I had written those letters myself.”
The “confession” – this time signed under his real name and with a copy of his National Identity Card – was sent to Ismail Qureshi, the lawyer.
Hours later, Hassan was handed over to the police at the Allama Iqbal Town police station in central Lahore, with Muhammad Wasim and Muhammad Naveed claiming they had finally captured the man who had been writing the “blasphemous” letters.
Hassan pauses, gesturing to show the length of his forearm. The police, he says, took a leather strap roughly that length and whipped him with it.
“They beat me with that, after tying me upside down. I urinated halfway through it, that’s how painful it was.”
They also beat him with their fists as they interrogated him, he adds. He protested his innocence, but says that the police were not willing to listen.
“They said whoever hits him once, he will get 10 blessings [from God].”
Hassan recalls how two policemen held him down while two others beat him.
Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, the lawyer representing the complainants, denied that Hassan had been beaten by Wasim and Naveed.
“There was a [Ahmadi] lobby behind him, and he wanted to get out of the country,” Chaudhry told Al Jazeera, about why he thought Hassan would have written the letters or implicated himself by sharing his identity documents. “That is why he did this thing.”
In court, too, Hassan says no one was willing to believe the word of a man accused of blasphemy.
“No one believed me,” he reflects.
Frightened for his family’s safety after he says the complainants had threatened to kill them if he told the truth, Hassan did not testify in his own defence.
“I have even said this in court, to the stenographer, to the judge, I have told them that my family members are in danger, that is why I cannot testify [in my defence],” he explains.
“[The judge] just said he was in more danger than I am.”
On July 27, 2002, Wajeeh-ul-Hassan was convicted on the basis of the testimony of Muhammad Wasim and Muhammad Naveed, and a handwriting analysis that showed there was a high likelihood he had written the letters.
He was sentenced to death.
Part 3: The prison
At first, police took Hassan to Lahore’s infamous Kot Lakhpat jail. A month earlier, a man accused of blasphemy had been murdered there.
Yousuf Ali, a Sufi Muslim scholar in his 50s, had been convicted and sentenced to death in August 2000 for allegedly claiming to be a prophet. Ali consistently denied the charges, saying he was a follower of Islam and was being framed. In June 2002, he was murdered by fellow inmate Muhammad Tariq, who was on death row for a previous murder, in the belief that killing Ali would guarantee him a place in heaven.
“They kept me in the same cell as where the man who was murdered had been kept,” says Hassan, explaining how he feared he would be killed.
Soon, he was moved to another jail in the central Pakistani town of Sahiwal, where he would spend the first six years of his sentence, all in solitary confinement.
“There were no fans in the cells,” he says. “The floors were unfinished. The walls were made of unfinished mud. The food was incredibly third-class.”
Eventually, the years in solitary began to take a toll on him.
“This is when I started talking to the walls, or to the ceiling, because I was locked up alone.”
After five years, he broke down in front of the jail superintendent.
“I started crying in front of him … that please [either] hang me, or end my solitary confinement.”
Seeing his desperation, he says the superintendent relaxed some of the restrictions around him, allowing him to spend up to two hours a day with other prisoners. This, however, brought a new kind of danger.
“Two [prisoners] raped me, saying that if I did not fulfil their needs they would kill me,” he says. “And nothing would come of it, because killing a person for [blasphemy] is a blessed act. ‘We will become [religious warriors, they said]’.”
He says he was raped once more, this time by a jail warden.
In Pakistani prisons, those convicted of blasphemy exist at the bottom of the hierarchy, he explains.
“They are hated, not just because of being a prisoner, but because of the religious aspect of why they are imprisoned. So whether it is other prisoners, jail employees, under-trial prisoners, you would only ever be called by a curse,” he says.
Blasphemy prisoners, held in high-security cells ostensibly for their own safety from other inmates, can go “a few months” without seeing sunlight, says Hassan.
Hassan spent another nine years at a jail in the town of Sheikhupura, before being moved in 2017 to a high-security prison in Faisalabad, where the majority of inmates were members of armed groups who had been convicted of terrorism charges.
For Hassan, however, everything was about to change.
Part 4: Redemption
Aasia Noreen, better known as Aasia Bibi, was convicted and sentenced to death on November 8, 2010, by a court in the town of Nankana Sahib. Noreen, a Christian, was accused of making blasphemous comments about the Prophet Muhammad while in an argument with two Muslim women over their refusal to drink water from the same vessel as her.
Despite numerous fair trial concerns, Noreen’s conviction was upheld by the Lahore High Court in 2014. By then, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti had been murdered for standing up for Noreen’s right to a fair trial, both in 2011.
In October 2018, however, Noreen’s final appeal was heard at the country’s Supreme Court, with judges acquitting her of all charges. In a landmark ruling by Judge Asif Saeed Khosa, the court ruled that prosecution witnesses appeared to have willfully lied to implicate Noreen and that there was no compelling evidence to deem her guilty.
“Blasphemy is a serious offence but the insult of the appellant’s religion and religious sensibilities by the complainant party and then mixing truth with falsehood in the name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was also not short of being blasphemous,” reads the verdict.
The verdict – only the second time a blasphemy case has ever reached the Supreme Court in Pakistan’s history – gave Hassan hope.
“[Judge Khosa] is a brave man, and I had some hope that he could secure my family,” says Hassan. “The first thing I said was that my family members must be given security.”
And so, 20 years after he was first accused, Hassan wrote a letter to Khosa, in which he gave, for the first time, full testimony in his own defence, detailing how he had been forced to write the letters, and how fear for his family’s safety had kept him silent for so many years.
For a few months, nothing happened and Hassan continued to languish at the Faisalabad jail. And then, on September 26, 2019, his mother came to visit him.
“Ami [mother] said that the Supreme Court had acquitted me,” he says. “I felt as if a bomb had exploded above my head. I was struck dumb. I could not speak. For several minutes, I was just staring into empty space.”
A new ordeal, however, was about to begin.
Part 5: ‘Still guilty’
“[In jail] you have a guarantee of being fed three times a day. You have a secure life in that there are guards who are there to ensure you remain alive […] life in jail is better than life outside,” says Hassan on a chilly Islamabad afternoon. “For people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, there is no guarantee you will be fed or have security or any place to live.”
Fearing that he may be recognised and murdered, Hassan covers his face with a surgical mask and wears a woolly hat.
“Even if I have to leave the house for 15 minutes, I wear a mask and cover my head, just like women wear the niqab,” he says.
Since his release in October, Hassan has not been able to return home. He met his family only briefly, for a few minutes under cover of night, before leaving again, out of fear that he or they may be attacked.
Today, he lives in a small village in a remote rural area, far from his family.
“You don’t even get cellphone signals there. If you have to phone someone, you have to go to the next village over.”
He says he cannot find work as he fears this will lead to him being recognised.
“I cannot even feed myself here. I cannot earn, and how long will people keep feeding me? As soon as that money falls short, I will die.”
While he was in prison, his longtime fiancee, a cousin, broke off their engagement. No one told Hassan until his release in October. Hassan says he spoke to her on the phone after he was released and she told him: “I cannot give my life for love.”
“Life ended at that moment,” he says. “You can say that now I just need to fill out my years with time.”
The end of his engagement to a woman he says he loved broke Hassan.
“Even after I have won this case and been proven to be innocent by the Supreme Court, I am not innocent. Still, I am guilty. And I don’t know what I should do? How can I convince people that I never converted my religion nor intended to? I was trapped, but as a result of that my life has been finished.”
Even so, Hassan, who read the Quran and other religious books voraciously while in prison, says if given the opportunity, he would forgive those who accused him.
“I would only say that while I have been destroyed, I have been crushed, everything has been taken from me [but] I will, as a Muslim, follow the teachings of my Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and … to Ismail Qureshi and all of the witnesses against me … I would say that in the name of God I forgive you.”
In Pakistan, Hassan’s case is hardly atypical – at the heart of many blasphemy allegations, there is often an unrelated dispute between the two parties. The law has been repeatedly used as a tool to avenge those scores, or as a tactic to pressure those accused into settling existing disputes.
Asked what he would say to those who use the law in this way, to settle disputes or blackmail people, Hassan begins to speak confidently once more about Islam’s teachings of forgiveness, but stops himself.
Tears start to well up in his eyes.
“My request of all of my Muslim brothers would be that all of these injustices that I have faced …,” he pauses, as the skin creases around his eyes and he begins to weep. “… For God’s sake, forgive them all,” he says, through the tears. “For God’s sake, forgive this as well.”