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Blasphemy charges create climate of fear for Pakistani media

  • Published at 06:51 pm March 20th, 2017
Blasphemy charges create climate of fear for Pakistani media

Ahmad Waqas Goraya couldn't see anything through the black hood, but he could hear the screams.

A Pakistani blogger with a penchant for criticising Pakistan's powerful military and taking the government to task, Goraya was kidnapped in January along with four other bloggers.

"I could hear the screams of torture," he said, struggling for words as the memories flooded back. "I don't even want to think about what they did."

But that wasn't the worst of it, he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. More terrifying was the accusation of blasphemy – punishable by death in Pakistan – hurled at him and his fellow bloggers. They were held in what Goraya called a "black site" on the edge of Lahore that some say is run by Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency.

Analysts and social media monitors say the blasphemy law is a powerful tool to silence critics. Some say it is being used by extremists to silence moderates at a time when Pakistanis are increasingly speaking out against violence and extremism, and voicing support for a government crackdown on Islamic militants.

In Pakistan, even the suggestion of blasphemy can be tantamount to a death sentence. It has incited extremists to take the law into their own hands and kill alleged perpetrators, often forcing people to flee the country, as Goraya and the other bloggers have.

Pakistan's government heightened concerns earlier this week when it said it had asked Facebook and Twitter to ferret out Pakistanis posting religiously offensive material, promising to seek their extradition if they are out of the country and prosecute them on blasphemy charges if they are in Pakistan.

In one high-profile case six years ago, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was gunned down by one of his guards, who accused him of blasphemy because he criticised the law and defended a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

The lawyer who is arguing the case against the bloggers, Tariq Asad, has openly called for their deaths, while praising outlawed Sunni militant groups who want the country's minority Shia declared non-Muslims.

The blasphemy charges against the bloggers being heard in Islamabad's High Court were filed by Salman Shahid, who has ties to Pakistan's Red Mosque, a hotbed of Islamic militancy where hundreds were killed in 2007 after security forces ended a months-long standoff with militants holed up inside. Asad is Shahid's lawyer.

Hamid Mir, a popular Pakistani news anchor, says both media owners and journalists operate under a cloud of fear. Threats come from a variety of quarters in Pakistan, including the powerful spy agencies, but the most frightening are from those who would use the blasphemy law, he said.

A group of senior lawyers in Pakistan told Mir there was only one lawyer who could defend him, Rizwan Abbasi, who was defending the seven militants accused in the deadly 2008 multi-pronged assault in Mumbai, India, which killed 127 people. Abbasi had also defended Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba group and one of India's most wanted men.

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