Summary and Current Status
Younis Muhammed Sheikh, a Pakistani medical doctor and college professor, was sentenced to death in August 2001 after being pronounced guilty of committing blasphemy in a physiology lecture he gave at the college where he teaches. Reliable reports indicate that his trial did not meet international fair trial standards and that the allegations made against him did not establish that he had committed an internationally recognizable crime.
Dr. Sheikh subsequently appealed his conviction. After many delays, his appeal was heard in October 2003. The judge decided not to confirm his death sentence and recommended that the case be sent to a lower court for a retrial. Dr. Sheikh’s retrial began on November 1, 2003, before the Islamabad Session Court. The second hearing took place on November 13, and the third on November 20, 2003. On November 21, Judge Chaudry Asad Raza announced his decision to acquit Dr. Sheikh and ordered his immediate release from prison. Despite efforts by his family to persuade him to hire a lawyer, Dr. Sheikh represented himself at his retrial. Given that former prisoners acquitted of blasphemy charges in Pakistan have been targeted by Muslim extremists—and in some cases killed—Dr. Sheikh accepted an asylum offer from the Swiss government. He arrived safely in Switzerland on Monday, January 19, 2004.
Dr. Sheikh is a medical doctor and a professor at Capital Homeopathic Medical College in Islamabad. He studied medicine in Ireland and spent several years working in the United Kingdom before returning to Pakistan. Dr. Sheikh is also an advocate of democracy and religious tolerance. In 1992, he founded The Enlightenment, an organization dedicated to democratic principles and the separation of religion and state, and reportedly has raised women rights and religious issues in public meetings. While Dr. Sheikh considers himself to be a devout Muslim, his views on women rights and religious issues are unpopular among conservative clerics in Pakistan.
On October 4, 2000, Dr. Sheikh was arrested, reportedly without a warrant, by Islamabad police. He was subsequently charged with blasphemy under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which calls for a mandatory death penalty. After two weeks in custody, Dr. Sheikh was brought before the court, without legal representation, and placed under judicial remand in Adyala jail in Rawalpindi. It is our understanding that the blasphemy charge was brought against Dr. Sheikh for allegedly defiling the image of the Holy Prophet Mohammed. In response to students' questions during a lecture on physiology that he gave at the college where he teaches, Dr. Sheikh reportedly said that the Prophet did not become a Muslim before the age of 40 and thus was not circumcised until then and that his parents were not Muslims. Dr. Sheikh's students reportedly wrote a letter of complaint about the incident. The letter was delivered to several conservative clerics by one of the students, who said in an interview, "only out of respect, because he [Dr. Sheikh] was our teacher, did we not beat him to death on the spot." The clerics in turn registered a complaint ("First Information Report") with the Margalla police station in Islamabad requesting that Dr. Sheikh be punished for blasphemy.
It is important to note that Pakistan's blasphemy laws are written in vague language that, according to human rights groups and many Pakistanis, have led to their misuse. According to Amnesty International, "The blasphemy laws of Pakistan are a handy tool to silence debate and dissent. They are also used to detain people when the real motivation includes land issues or professional rivalry. In the interest of justice, the blasphemy laws should be abolished or as a first step amended to prevent abuse." Several years ago Pakistani President Musharraf proposed that all charges of blasphemy be reviewed by local officials before being brought before a court. In the face of considerable pressure by conservative groups, however, he later dropped the proposal.
Dr. Sheikh reportedly was attacked by a group of clerics on the premises of the court. Furthermore, a group of 20 conservative clerics reportedly were present in the courtroom when Dr. Sheikh was placed under judicial remand. On January 16, 2001, the High Court in Rawalpini reportedly rejected Dr. Sheikh's application for bail. Some sources report that the reason for the rejection of Dr. Sheikh's request for bail was the court's effort to ensure Dr. Sheikh's well-being by keeping him shielded from radical fundamentalist groups.
Dr. Sheikh's trial, in August 2001, was held within the prison, reportedly for security reasons. It has been reported that a crowd of Islamic conservatives had gathered outside of the prison, which may have intimidated the judge. According to Dr. Sheikh's lawyer, Mr. Chotiya, on the day Dr. Sheikh was convicted, the judge was "visibly harassed," and the conviction order "did not even have his [the judge's] signature.
Dr. Sheikh filed an appeal of his conviction. However, his appeal hearing before the High Court, set for November 6, 2001, was postponed. The appeal subsequently took place in spring 2002. The judges, however, delayed rendering a decision. In late summer 2002 the two judge panel made their verdict; the decision reportedly was split 1 to 1 on whether to overturn the guilty verdict. Because the decision was divided, the chief judge reportedly appointed in September 2002 a single new judge to rehear the case. After being postponed four times, the appeal hearing took place before the Lahore High Court on October 9, 2003. The High Court judge, Justice Chohan, reportedly decided not to confirm Dr. Sheikh’s death sentence and recommended that his case be sent for a retrial to a lower court.
Dr. Sheikh’s retrial began on November 1, 2003, at the Islamabad Session Court. Against the advice of his friends and family, Dr. Sheikh chose to represent himself in court. On November 21, 2003, the day after the third hearing, Judge Chaudry Asad Raza ordered Dr. Sheikh’s acquittal and his immediate release from prison. Because of concerns for his personal safety in Pakistan, Dr. Sheikh decided to accept an asylum offer from the Swiss government. On January 19, 2004, he arrived safely in Switzerland.
Amnesty International considered Dr. Sheikh to be a prisoner of conscience.