PAKISTAN: Intelligence agencies using blasphemy to gag criticism of its atrocities

Blogger Ahmed Waqas Goraya, who disappeared earlier this year along with four other social media activists, has recently revealed the names of his abductors. Mr. Goraya posted on his Facebook page that Colonel Khalid of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, and a civilian deputy director, Mr. Irtiza, tortured him while in custody. Having remained quiet for many months, Mr. Goraya stated that he was now compelled to reveal the officials’ names to expose their maligning campaign against his family, particularly his wife.

Mr. Goraya has further stated that it was Colonel Khalid who made fake screenshots of the ‘blasphemous posts’ used as ‘evidence’ of his alleged blasphemy. According to the blogger, by using blasphemy as a tool to campaign against bloggers and activists, the intelligence agencies are playing with the sentiments of the people. 

In the case of the four bloggers, the intelligence agencies’ tactics to disappear their critics backfired, and they had to be released. The intelligence agencies then began a maligning campaign against them, which continued for several months after their release. Mr. Goraya was brave enough to stand up against them however and even named his abductors.

In Pakistan, an allegation of blasphemy is enough to incarcerate, lynch and murder the alleged accused. The general masses are made to believe that they are not adequate Muslims if they do not take up arms against the blasphemer. The accusation requires no evidence whatsoever, and a charged mob unleashes its wrath on the unfortunate person without giving him a chance to explain himself.

According to Mr. Goraya, the military paid the anchors of TV channel Bol to incite the masses against the bloggers, having doctored images that contained blasphemous content against the prophet (PHUB).

To make matters worse, Pakistan’s judiciary is now handing out death sentences for blasphemy committed online. On 10 June 2017, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) sentenced a man to death for sharing blasphemous content about Islam on social media. The Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) had arrested the alleged accused, who belongs to the Shia community. Given that online media accounts can be easily hacked and fake screenshots created, it is a dangerous precedence for courts to dole out capital punishments for cyber related crimes. According to rights activists, the sentence is the harshest among cyber-crime related sentences handed down so far in the country.

At least 19 people remain on death row after being convicted under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law, and hundreds await trial. Most of those facing blasphemy are members of religious minorities, often victimized due to personal disputes.

Though the state of Pakistan has never executed anyone convicted of blasphemy, angry mob and jail inmates are incited to do the state’s dirty work, such as a British Ahmadi blasphemy accused, who was murdered inside the jail by the jailer. 
Critiques of state policies and those subscribing to religions other than the state religion, attract the ire of the establishment. The common perception in Pakistan, that ordinary citizens are not free to express their thoughts, has been validated with state inaction towards hate mongers and the clamping down on social media activists.

Pakistan is cracking down against blasphemy related crimes on social media with the former Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar, threatening to block all social media websites with ‘blasphemous content’.

Given the widespread abuse of the blasphemy law, that has only recently garnered local and international media attention following the lynching of student Mashal Khan, the judiciary is suggesting measures to punish false accusations.

Recently the Islamabad High Court has suggested that parliament make the blasphemy law tougher by fixing the same punishment for any person misusing it or falsely accusing someone of blasphemy. Currently, there is a very minor punishment for falsely accusing someone of blasphemy. Section 182 of the PPC entails the maximum punishment of six months or a fine up to Rs1,000 only; a very minor punishment for such a serious offence of accusing someone of blasphemy.

The liberty to speak one’s mind without fear of repercussion is fast shrinking. The masses live under constant fear of being trolled online, harassed and threatened in the real world. No one dares speak for his or her rights, or in favor of the marginalized. To condemn religious extremism, mass corruption, and military dictatorship is akin to blasphemy and is not permitted.

Meanwhile, pro establishment militants are allowed to spew hatred and kill innocent civilians. When anyone questions why these elements go scot free, their loyalty and patriotism is questioned, and they are termed traitors. Lastly, blasphemy allegations are used to ruin their lives, compelling them to flee the country.

The Federal investigation Agency (FIA) has become a tool of oppression and is used to interrogate and target social media activists for exercising their right to freedom of expression on social media. In March 2017, the FIA arrested and interrogated an activist for allegedly criticizing the armed forces on social media. The FIA also obtained a two-day physical remand of the activist who was booked under sections 20 and 24 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (harming the reputation of a person and cyber stalking), and sections 419 and 500 of the Pakistan Penal Code (impersonation and defamation).

Freedom of expression is gravely endangered at present, with Pakistan’s Cyber Crime Wing of the FIA ordered by the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, to take immediate action against any person or group involved in dishonoring or maligning the Pakistan Army on social media. As a result, more than 200 activists were taken into custody in recent times. While most have been released, their laptops and cell phones were confiscated for some days, and all the data was erased.

The AHRC apprehends that this is a dangerous trend and must be halted immediately; otherwise, the anarchy that may follow will not be contained. Criticizing the state or the armed forces is not tantamount to an attack on state sovereignty and should not be construed as such. The AHRC demands that the perpetrator of violence against the bloggers be brought to books and given exemplary punishment to bring the trend of violence against the bloggers and social media activists to an end.