LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Amid a government campaign in Pakistan against “blasphemous” content online, a Christian was arrested on Friday (June 16) when a Muslim accused him of blasphemy after a dispute over a repair bill, sources said.
After millions of Pakistanis last month began receiving text messages from the government warning them against sharing or uploading “blasphemous” content online – a move rights activists say encourages more vigilante attacks on people spuriously accused of blasphemy – the falsely accused father of a 2-year-old girl was jailed under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes, his brother said.
Claiming that it was acting on a court order, the government-run Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) began sending text messages to all mobile phone users last month warning that “uploading & sharing of blasphemous content on Internet is a punishable offence under the law” and giving a government email address for reporting such content.
The PTA has reportedly received more than 3,000 complaints of blasphemous content on social media, with investigators determining 1,660 websites contained such content. Most of the websites have reportedly been blocked, and posts on social media such as Facebook and YouTube were under investigation.
Since the approval of Pakistan’s Cyber Crime Bill in March, the government has reportedly arrested four people accused of posting blasphemous content on websites.
Christian rights activist Napolean Qayyum told Morning Star News that anyone can invent a fake social media account and post blasphemous content in another’s name.
“All that needs to be done after that is registration of a case under the blasphemy law, and you will be in jail for a good number of years until the court decides your fate,” said Qayyum, adding that handing out death sentences in social media cases would only encourage more false cases.
The Pakistani government lacks the will to end misuse of blasphemy laws, he said.
“Rather than punishing people who misuse these laws, it is encouraging them to report such content,” he said. “Now no one is safe in Pakistan, not even Muslims.”
Nabeel Masih, a 16-year-old Christian, was arrested in Kasur District of Punjab Province last September for allegedly posting a sacriligious photograph of the Ka’aba, the holiest Islamic site in the Saudi city of Mecca, on Facebook.
Masih’s lawyer, Advocate Riaz Anjum, claims that the charge against his client is “clearly fabricated, as he is an illiterate and does not know how to use social media.”
The charge against the 23-year-old father filed in Lahore last week was not a cyber case but was rooted in the same vindictive instinct that critics say the online crack-down threatens to unleash. A Muslim, Mohammad Irfan, on Thursday (June 15) refused to pay Ishfaq Masih for a repaired bicycle tire in the Green Town area of Lahore, Masih’s brother Mahmood Masih said.
Irfan told Ishfaq Masih that it was not right to demand money from a “Mirasi,” or genealogist and traditional singer, and an argument followed, Masih’s brother said.
“During the argument, Irfan said that he obeys only one master, Prophet Muhammad, to which Ishfaq said that he was a Christian and his faith ends at Christ,” Mahmood Masih said. “Upon hearing this, Irfan raised a clamor that Ishfaq had blasphemed against Muhammad. Soon a mob gathered at the spot, and someone called the police, who took Ishfaq into custody.”
Riaz Anjum, Masih’s attorney, said that Mohammad Ishfaq, the landlord of the building housing Ishfaq Massih’s repair shop, had filed a First Information Report (No. 797/17) under Section 295-C of the blasphemy law. Mohammad Ishfaq claimed that he and Mohammad Irfan, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Naveed, Nadeem Gujjar and Mohammad Tahir had heard Ishfaq Masih say derogatory words against the Muslim prophet, Anjum told Morning Star News.
The attorney said the claim itself was contrary to facts because none of the men mentioned in the FIR except Mohammad Irfan were present at the scene when the alleged blasphemy took place.
“Irfan had gathered the other men, including the complainant Mohammad Ishfaq, and they then concocted the allegation against Ishfaq Masih and got him arrested,” Anjum said.
He said he was hopeful that his client would be released on bail because there was no mention of what exactly he had said, and no substantive reason was stated for his alleged outburst.
“The FIR is quite weak, as it does not contain any specific blasphemous words that my client may have allegedly said,” Anjum said. “It also shows that the police did not even bother to investigate the charge before registering a case against the poor man. This is the routine practice of the police in blasphemy cases, and it’s a shame that nothing is being done to stop it.”
He added that he would file a bail application as soon as police prepare a report and detailed statements of the purported witnesses.
Government concern over online blasphemy heated up in January, when five liberal activists known for their outspoken views against Islamist extremism and the powerful military disappeared, presumed to be abducted by state agencies.
Four of them returned to their families weeks later, but not before they were tarnished by a virulent campaign to paint them as enemies of Islam who deserved execution. One of them later reportedly said that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had held and tortured them and had conceived anti blasphemy campaign in order to silence critical voices. The agency has denied involvement.
On June 10, an anti-terrorism court in Bahawalpur in Punjab province sentenced a Shia Muslim man to death for sharing blasphemous content about Islam on social media, the first such sentence in the country’s history. The accused had allegedly posted derogatory content about prominent religious figures and Muhammad and his wives on Facebook.
The sentence is the harshest among cyber-crime related sentences handed down so far in the country. Pakistan has never executed anyone convicted of blasphemy.
Rights activist believe that the cyber initiative will encourage more lynchings, such as the killing of a 23-year-old student known for his liberal views at the hands of hundreds of fellow students in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province early in April.
A mob at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan beat a Mashal Khan to death after accusing him of blasphemy over social media. The incident caused outrage throughout the country, with calls for the blasphemy law to be amended. An investigation into Mashal’s murder cleared him of all blasphemy accusations.