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Mob Rule, Vigilante Behavior and Blasphemy in Pakistan's Digital Age

BY Nighat Dad | Wednesday, November 26 2014

London's Pakistani community protests Pakistan's blasphemy law (helen.2006/flickr)

Blasphemy cases in Pakistan are considered a norm these days. However, the latest incident of a mob beating to death a Christian couple is the most gruesome manifestation of this sensitive issue. The couple in Punjab was alleged to have desecrated a copy of the Qur’an. The mob attacked the couple, killed them, and later burnt their bodies in the brick kiln where they worked. The blasphemy law presents a frightening level of vigilante violence where prison and private guards, neighbors and colleagues turn into mobs killing those accused of blasphemy. Unfortunately, this mob behavior is being strengthened by the increasing adoption of technology in the country like mobile phones and the internet.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan prescribe life imprisonment for anyone who defiles a copy of the Qur'an and death for insulting or criticizing the prophet Muhammad. However, seldom do the cases reach the walls of the courts and more often than not, they actually end in the deaths of those accused without ever being proven guilty. An estimated 1,247 people have been charged under this stringent law between 1986 and 2010. However, the death sentence has never been implemented. The law has historically been used to settle personal vendettas with an increasing focus on minorities.

More and more cases are surfacing now after the increased adoption of mobile technologies and internet in the country. Cyberspace and text messages have now become a major part of not only providing evidence but also for mass-sharing details of the accused. From Facebook walls to text messages sent through mobile phones, accused have suffered nothing less but death without ever being proven guilty. In the first of such cases where cyberspace was used as an evidence for blasphemy case, a 25-year old was arrested on November 18, 2013 in Toba Tek Singh of Punjab province. The complaint was made by the prayer leader of a mosque in the town who accused the youth for having shared objectionable material on his Facebook wall.

The same town of Toba Tek Singh saw another blasphemy case where an uneducated, poor Christian couple was accused of texting blasphemous messages to local Muslims. The accused, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shaghufta Kausar, were handed death sentences by a trial court reportedly under great pressure from the public. The lawyer presenting the couple’s case commented to a local online paper that the judge announced the sentence, even though the prosecution failed to present any concrete evidence against the couple, after receiving threats from complainant’s lawyers who said they were willing to become Mumtaz Qadri if the judge didn’t convict the accused. Mumtaz Qadri is the murderer of ex-Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer and is considered the epitome of piety for religious extremists and a role model for hijacking the institutional judiciary when it presides over blasphemy cases. The country has become so acutely religiously-polarized that if someone so much as takes the side of a blasphemy victim, they themselves will be denounced as a blasphemer.

There seems to be a number of fundamental problems with Pakistan's approach to blasphemy law in general, and some specific issues concerning its enforcement. Section 295 of Penal Code, better known as the blasphemy law, dates back to pre-partition India when it was introduced by the British Government in 1860 to protect religious feelings. In 1986, conservative religious leaders pressured General Zial-ul-Haq, the then-military dictator of the country, to amend the section introducing extreme punishments and allowing only a muslim judge to hear the case under this Section.

Prior to 1986, only 14 cases pertaining to blasphemy were reported. Since there are no strict criteria and definitions of blasphemy and no prerequisites of any evidence except for the accuser’s word, citizens often exploit this law to settle their own quarrels. In several areas, the law appears imbalanced. For instance, the secular and Sharia legal systems have fundamentally different philosophies about the role of evidence. The constitution, on the face of it, establishes equal rights for all established religions but the country has witnessed its leaders declaring a whole section of the population as non-Muslim. Neither the constitution nor the enforcement of the blasphemy laws deal satisfactorily with the issue of preventing mob rule, vigilante behavior and even lynching -- in what is by nature a very inflammatory social topic.

Furthermore, the law is clearly struggling to remain relevant and practical in an age of instantaneous global communication. The administration's current policy seems to be to delegate responsibility to bodies such as the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA), which blocks entire websites on a whim, and publishes lists of “forbidden texting vocabulary” without any clue as to how some terms are classed as acceptable and others as profane. With the inclusion of cyberspace, specifically social media and the mobile technologies, it has become life-threatening for the accused since evidence can reach the mass public in a matter of minutes. Even if the cases reach the courts, it is uncertain how the legal system will rule out the hacking of accounts and provide support without any strong legal framework around cyberspace.

While the law was draconian ever since its inception, it has become lethal in the past few years. Not only does the invasion of cyberspace by this extremist behavior create security problems for the accused but also promotes a culture of self-censorship affecting freedom of expression online. Pakistani netizens have traditionally remained a strong community online with liberal, tolerant groups supporting each other including dissidents and minorities, both political, and religious. However, this recent influx of mob behavior -- which is capable within only a few hours of identifying victims online, getting their personal information, mass-sharing it with text messages, and then killing the accused -- affects the entire ecosystem of free and open online spaces in the country.

Nighat Dad is executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan. She lives in Lahore.