Shooting outside Quetta District Court

Lara Haneef| Updated 22 June 2008

QUETTA: Unidentified gunmen and military guards exchanged gunfire outside the district court on Friday, resulting in multiple casualties. Local officials report that the attackers targeted and shot the lawyer, Sikander Ghaznavi. Ghaznavi had recently returned to Pakistan to defend Danesh Masih, age 13, against charges of blasphemy. At the time of filing this report, doctors at the Civil Hospital confirmed one person dead and several critically injured.

Pir Piya, the locally renowned holy man and key witness in the prosecution’s case, said that Ghaznavi “must have known that this would be the likely outcome of defending someone who defames the prophet”. Although the pir says that he pays no attention to rumours, he felt that Sikander’s American links could not be ignored. “Many people say that he was sent to Pakistan by the Americans to foment civil unrest and attack symbols of our religion. The devil led him astray.”

Ghaznavi’s military escort has added fuel to these theories. However, many human rights activists have spoken up for the lawyer. Sanah Khan, Ghaznavi’s co-counsel, said, “He is a hero who fought for justice. And it is a fight that we will carry on.”

This is not the first time that the Ghaznavis have courted controversy. Sikander is the son of the late Yahya Ghaznavi, a leading barrister in Pakistan who surprised the legal community by unexpectedly supporting the dictator, Zia-ul-Haq. Ghaznavi’s family could not be reached for comment.

Osman Haneef

Fall 2007: The Arrest

Nazneen offered Sikander a glass of pomegranate juice. They sat on the terrace, overlooking the courtyard of the house, and watched the sunset over the distant mountains. Sikander took a sip of the refreshing, red drink. As a gust of early October wind blew through the courtyard, Sikander realised that he should start wearing a jacket in the evenings.

Sanah’s reception party had been last week but Sikander hadn’t gone. He sent her a text message, making some excuse about feeling unwell and wishing her all the best. He couldn’t believe that in the end, on the day of her wedding reception, he was nothing more than a distant acquaintance.

The bell rang and Sikander went to open the gate. He found Mena bent over, hands on her knees, perspiring and breathing heavily. She stood up and looked at Sikander with desperate and fearful eyes.

“Sikander sahib,” she said between breaths. “They’ve taken him. He’s gone.”

“Mena, what are you talking about?”

“The police have arrested Danesh.”

“Slow down. Tell me what happened.” Sikander still didn’t quite understand it.

“We were walking in the market when the police stopped us and took him. I tried to stop them but there was nothing I could do. I went with them to the police station but they didn’t let me see Danesh. When I asked them why they had taken him, they just ignored me. Finally, one of them told me. Oh God. It’s awful...”

“What did they say?”

“They’ve arrested him for dishonouring the Prophet’s name – for blasphemy.”

Sikander entered his father’s study and started to look through the rows of books on Pakistani case law, spilling out of the shelves.

He remembered how as a child he used to pick up these books and be mesmerised by how little he could understand of the legalese. Yet, it was among these books that his desire to become a lawyer was born. He remembered how, when he was probably four or five, he would watch quietly as his father would dole out legal advice to every type of visitor imaginable: farmers, labourers, politicians, and even other lawyers.

He had a vivid memory of a labourer who had beaten up his supervisor after the labourer had been caught stealing from the farmer who employed him. The labourer, on the run from police, had come to Baba and admitted his crime. He couldn’t pay Baba but Sikander’s father didn’t care about money. He took on the case. Sikander had asked his father why he would defend such an awful person who was clearly guilty and dangerous.

“No one is really good or bad, Sikander,” Baba had said. “A person’s circumstances and environment often force them to act in awful ways. For instance, this labourer is trying to feed a family of ten. He was desperate. That doesn’t make it okay but at least you can understand why he did it, can’t you?”

“I guess,” Sikander said.

“Besides, people like us have a moral obligation to do what we can for the less privileged people of country.”

“What do you mean?” Sikander asked.

“Well, you get to study in a good school, don’t you? And you’re well fed and looked after.”


“So as someone who has all these advantages, you have a duty to look after those less fortunate. People who are given a lot, should give a lot back.”

Now, thinking about the conversation, Sikander found it ironic.

He opened the drawer on his father’s desk and started to look for a master appendix of some sort. Green paper folders and discoloured papers with various case notes were everywhere.

When Sikander first heard about the blasphemy law (Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code), he thought it was a twisted joke. The law’s origins dated back to British colonial rule. The colonial government introduced a law that criminalised acts “intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief”. The law maintained peace and promoted tolerance in a multireligious society. But as with so much in Pakistan, the best of intentions result in the most egregious violations of human dignity.

The government under Zia-ul-Haq, the dictator in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s, perverted the law so that it no longer maintained peace but rather presented more avenues for citizens to persecute religious minorities.

In 1986, the act of defiling Islam became punishable by death. Since then, over a thousand cases of blasphemy had been registered in Pakistan. That wasn’t the complete story though.

Sikander opened a folder and a series of old, faded photographs of his father and mother fell out. In these photos, his mother was dressed in a full-sleeved conservative shalwar kameez with minimal adornments, and his father had grown a beard. Even though the smiling face of the central character in these photos had been extremely prominent in the country’s history, his mother had not put up these pictures in the main house. Zia, beaming with his devilish grin, stood flanked by Baba and an advocate by the name of Qureshi.

Standing next to Baba was his mother, whose face looked at the floor as if she was too ashamed to face the camera. The back of the card read “1978 Islamabad”. His father had been an active adviser in the Islamisation of the country. Many of Baba’s friends had turned against him when he had supported the blasphemy law. Sikander never understood why his father had done it. Though it was difficult to face, Sikander knew that his father had been instrumental in the creation of the unjust law.

Excerpted with permission from Blasphemy: The Trial of Danesh Masih, Osman Haneef, Readomania.