In Pakistan, Death Can Be Just a WhatsApp Share Away

The Sessions Court in Gujranwala where Junaid Munir was sentenced to death. Credit: Ehtisham Shami/IPS
The Sessions Court in Gujranwala where Junaid Munir was sentenced to death. Credit: Ehtisham Shami/IPS
  • by Zofeen Ebrahim (karachi)
  • Inter Press Service

“The earth moved from underneath my feet,” is how 57-year-old Chaudhry Munir Hussain, Munir’s father, described his feelings as he heard the judge read out the judgment that day in a court in Gujranwala, a city in Punjab province.

“My daughter collapsed and fell down on the floor there and then,” said Hussain, adding, “She was unable to sit for her civil services examination,” that was taking place around the time. He was talking from Tokyo, where he is staying. He has lived between Pakistan and Japan for the past 30 years, running an “import-export car business in Japan." But this time he had fled Pakistan, believing his life was under threat.

Blasphemy is an offense with an unwaivable death penalty but is notoriously known to be used to carry out personal vendettas.

To date, no one has been executed, yet scores continue to be convicted and then languish in jail. Data provided by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) shows there are 587 prisoners in various jails across Punjab. Among these, 515 are under trial, including 508 male, six female, and one juvenile prisoner, all confined under blasphemy.

The momentum has gained. In 2023 alone, said CSJ, at least 329 people were accused of blasphemy. Of these, 247 (75%) were Muslims, 65 Ahmadis (the Pakistani constitution has declared them non-Muslims), 11 Christians, and one Hindu. The religious affiliation of the remaining five remains unknown. Punjab was the most affected province, where 179 were accused.

At least 2,449 people had been accused of blasphemy between 1987 and 2023. The highest number of accused were 1,279 Muslims, followed by 782 Ahmadis. The highest number of cases (1770) were reported in Punjab (72%), according to the CSJ.

The signed and stamped ‘warrant’ on Munir, sent to the superintendent in Gujranwala’s Central Prison by the judge, quoted here verbatim, states videos and photographs showed “writing most sacred name of the Holy Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and the kalma on sex part of human bodies with intention to defile the Holy name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)”.

It added that it was done intentionally and deliberately with the intent to “outrage the religious feeling of Muslims”.

The accusation perplexes Hussain.

“We are devout Muslims belonging to the Barelvi Sunni sect. There are verses etched at the entrance of my house, paying homage to Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). For over 40 years, my family has been serving the neighborhood mosque and sweeping its floors, which we consider an honorable duty. We illuminate the entire lane every year to celebrate the Prophet’s birth. Do you think we would ever defame him?” Hussain tried to reason. He said his son has been falsely accused and framed on this serious charge. “I brook no enmity with anyone,” adding cautiously, “There are people who want to get hold of our property for a very long time.”

According to the community living in his village, Hussain belonged to a humble background, but his business picked up and he did extremely well, which may have caused jealousies.

“Still, I went to those who had accused my son, fell on their feet and apologized to them on behalf of my son if he had hurt their sentiments,” said Hussain. “I even got fatwas from different religious seminaries that said a person can be forgiven.”

“Wherever there is even a slight bit of doubt, confusion, or the case is not clear-cut, one should find a middle ground,” according to Hafiz Muhammad Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), talking over the phone from Islamabad. Over the years, the council has intervened in 103 out of 114 cases that have come to its attention, and the accused has been saved from the wrath of people.

Ashrafi had also been part of another high-profile case where Junaid Jamshed, a pop singer turned popular religious scholar, was accused of blasphemy but later acquitted.

Having seen the material sent allegedly by Munir, which he found “extremely obscene," and being privy to the investigation, Ashrafi said, “The FIA had investigated this thoroughly and I don’t think anyone is framing the boy.”

“I would think the FIA should have the technical capacity and the resources to discern, decipher, and verify people who impersonate other people’s pages and carry out blasphemy, or deepfake and AI-generated content,” said Nighat Dad, heading the Digital Rights Foundation, adding her organization’s experience with the FIA’s cybercrime wing had shown they are adept at handling cyber harassment.

Munir, a first-year law student, was arrested on June 15, 2022, from Lahore by the FIA’s cybercrime wing, under anti-blasphemy laws in the Pakistan Penal Code, 1980. His case was later shifted to Gujranwala at the direction of the Lahore High Court, with explicit orders that the trial be completed within two months. But it took the court two years to convict him.

“The last two years have been like a thousand years for me,” said Hussain. “Our lives have been ruined by these cruel people.”

Munir has also been charged under cybercrime legislation, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), 2016, termed a draconian law by human rights defenders.

Farieha Aziz, a cybercrime expert and co-founder of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights, said: “Various sections of PECA 2016 criminalize speech in an excessive and overly broad manner and have been used routinely against journalists, academics, and political workers from time to time.” PECA, she said, has anti-speech, anti-privacy, and anti-Internet provisions.

“It is not uncommon for people to be booked for alleged blasphemy online,” said Aziz. We have seen how malicious online campaigns have been run against activists in the past, labelling them as blasphemers or pushing for them to be booked under the blasphemy law where no such offense has been committed but this is used to silence them by putting a target on a person's back, which has offline consequences and endangers their life.”

Lawyer Mohammad Jibran Nasir and Dr Arfana Mallah, associate professors at the University of Sindh, in Jamshoro, have had their share of close calls for speaking in support of alleged blasphemers.

But the bigger concern, said Aziz, was that “accounts are hacked or impersonation accounts put out material” that is not by the accused. And even before that is established, the latter is booked.

“Expanding the use of blasphemy cases against people for what they say or share on social media is an invitation for witch hunts,” stated Patricia Gossman, Associate Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, in a dispatch. “The Pakistani government should amend and ultimately repeal its blasphemy laws, not further extend their scope online,” said the statement.

Dad admitted: “Technology can be extremely harmful, especially where the law enforcing agencies are not so well equipped.”

But this is not the first time.

In 2014, a Christian couple was sentenced to death for sending a blasphemous text message in English to their local cleric. The couple denied it, saying they were illiterate and did not know the language. In 2016, a Christian named Nadeem James was sentenced to death for sending a poem to a Muslim friend that insulted Islam and 30-year-old Taimoor Raza was sentenced to death after getting into a sectarian debate about Islam on Facebook with a man who was a counter-terrorism official.

Then there is the case of Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at the Bahahuddin Zakariya University in Multan, a city in Punjab, who has been imprisoned since 2001 after being accused of uploading blasphemous material over Facebook by a student. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was murdered in 2014.

More recently, Aneeqa Atiq, 26, was sentenced to death by a court in Rawalpindi in 2022 for allegedly sharing blasphemous material via WhatsApp.

When not imprisoned, those who have been marked are often killed by the people. In 2017, Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, was beaten to death by students accusing him of posting blasphemous material over social media. An investigation later proved he was innocent. Last year, seven people were killed extrajudicially. From 1994 to 2023, 95 people have been lynched.

“We've also seen campaigns targeting activists fighting for any change in the blasphemy law and know how lethal these can be, leading to the loss of lives, as we saw with Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti for proposing amendments and reforms to the country's blasphemy laws,” said Aziz.

So far, only one person has ever been punished: Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard of Governor Salman Taseer for killing his employer. Qadri was hanged for killing the governor in 2016.

Earlier this month, in a brave attempt, a young policewoman, Shehrbano Naqvi, averted mob lynching of a woman wearing clothes that had Arabic calligraphy written on them, which people thought were verses from the Quran. Following the incident, the CSJ issued a statement calling for action to address "the flaws in the existing laws and looming religious intolerance."

“My son is suffering from a very rare sickness called immune thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), an autoimmune disorder,” implored the worried father. “He is just skin and bones under the khaki-colored jail uniform. It breaks my heart to see my child, who keeps insisting he is innocent,” said Hussain in a heavy voice. He said he is going to appeal his son’s sentence in the Lahore High Court this week.

IPS UN Bureau Report

Follow IPS News UN Bureau on Instagram

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service