Persecution, online

January 17, 2021

Recent sentences in cases of alleged blasphemy, by an ATC in Islamabad, highlight the increase in policing and persecution of individuals in the digital space

On January 8, Friday, a small room of an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in Islamabad was packed, mostly with clerics. They gathered in the court room to hear the verdict in the case of sharing of allegedly blasphemous content on social media. Outside the court, security was strict. Free movement was restricted but did not bother the gathered clerics. The four accused, handcuffed together to a long chain, were sitting on a side of the courtroom, waiting for their fate to be decided in the case that has gone on for almost four years.

Out of the eight nominated in the case by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) under the cybercrime law, four were put on trial. The rest remain absconders. Among those under trial, Judge Raja Jawad Abbas Hassan awarded death penalty to three under Section 295-C of Pakistan Penal Code (the law carries no other sentence than death) and sentenced the fourth, a professor of Urdu literature, to 10 years rigorous imprisonment under Section 295A of the PPC for “hurting the religious feelings of Muslims.”

“The prosecution has managed to establish its case of deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs against accused Anwaar Ahmed and use of derogatory remarks in respect of Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) against accused persons Abdul Waheed, Rana Nouman Rafaqat and Nasir Ahmad and thereby inciting hatred and contempt on religious, sectarian or ethnic basis to stir up violence. Therefore, accused persons are liable to be convicted,” the verdict read. The accused persons Nasir Ahmad, Abdul Waheed and Rana Nouman Rafaqat were sentenced to death. Prof Anwaar Ahmad was also sentenced to five years imprisonment under the Anti-Terrorism Act. The court also ordered issuance of arrest warrants of the four absconding accused Faraz Pervaiz, Pervaiz Iqbal, Tayyab Sardar and Rao Qaiser Shehzad Khan.

After conclusion of an enquiry in March 2017, the FIA cybercrime cell had lodged this case with the allegation that there were several people/groups disseminating/spreading blasphemous material through social media including Facebook and Twitter, through profiles/pages/handles/sites namely “Bhensa”,“Dhobi”, “Machar”, “Islam Institute”, “Jogan”, “Molvi Burqa” and several others in “an organised manner” “willfully defiling and outraging feelings, beliefs” by “using derogatory words/remarks/graphic designed images/sketches/visual representations” in respect of the sacred name of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and other religious figures (family/ companions of the prophet). The matter was taken up by the Islamabad High Court in March 2017 and instead of arresting the people running the aforementioned pages, the FIA registered cases against four other persons and put them on trial in an anti-terrorism court.

One of them, Nasir was accused of “claiming prophethood”, while two others, Abdul Waheed and Nouman were accused of running a website promoting secularism and spreading anti-Islam views that falls in the category of blasphemy. Prof Anwaar, in late 50s, was accused of alleged blasphemy for his interpretation of the poetry of Urdu poet Josh Maleeh Abadi, known for his progressive views. A student of the professor had uploaded a video of his lecture six months after it was delivered, raising doubts about the intent of the person who spread it, the counsel for the professor believed.

Soon after the judgment was announced, the assembled clerics left the courtroom and started making fiery speeches next to it. They celebrated the judgment, congratulated the complainant, saluted the judge and urged the government to execute the convicts at the earliest.

“God has blessed us with two Eids today – one Friday as the day and the other by this news of death sentence to the blasphemers,” a cleric with flower garlands around his neck said in his speech.

“Do not delay the executions,” he warned the government, adding, “Otherwise, don’t blame us for taking the law in our hands.”

In the court room, some media persons were seen congratulating the complainant for putting this important case to an end and some clerics were distributing sweets. The policemen deployed on security of the accused, too, received some.

“Please,” a police official said while offering a box of sweets to a shocked person, not knowing that he was related to one of the convicts.

“I am speechless and shocked to see the kind of (one-sided) atmosphere,” he told TNS with fear and pain in his eyes. He added, “I am ashamed of living in such a society.”

He had been waiting for several hours outside the court room to say goodbye to his convicted brother. The accused were not allowed to leave the courtroom for a long time in view of the atmosphere outside the court.

Persecution of people in the name blasphemy in the digital space is being discussed as a growing challenge and threat to freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Giving the critical voices on social media a shut-up call through comments or threatening them in the name of religious derogation has frighteningly become routine, which is also causing self-censorship. People, not only belonging to other faiths but also to various sects within Islam and groups/individual with progressive views are under threat and attack because of social media moral policing.

In 2017, when Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui of the IHC took up the matter of blasphemous content on social media after a hardline religious group’s member moved the court, he called for a ban on social media sites in Pakistan to disallow the spread of ‘blasphemous’ images online.

“I will go to every extent to bring this case to its logical end and if needed I will even ban social media in Pakistan,” he was reported to have said. A few months ago, the complainant in the recently-decided case, had approached the IHC complaining the “slow progress” in the case. The IHC had then ordered the ATC to decide the case by the end of the year (2020). Many lawyers say such directions put extra pressure on trial courts, resulting in hasty judgments.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USIRF), in its 2020 Annual Report, highlights concern about the “systematic enforcement of blasphemy laws”. The US in its previous reports has also designated Pakistan a “country of particular concern” for its “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief.” Pakistan, however, has dismissed this as a “selective assessment” by the US.

The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Persecution, online: Rise in policing, persecution of individuals in digital space