Pakistan blasphemy law viewed as blunt instrument to silence dissent


Life can never go back to the way it was for Ahmed Waqas Goraya. Ever since he was accused of blasphemy – a Pakistani law that can mean the death penalty for those seen as insulting Islam or the Muslim prophet Muhammad – he's lived like a wanted man.

Goraya was among five bloggers kidnapped last year, allegedly by the country's spy agency for their views, which were published online and deemed as being too critical by the powerful army.

Interrogators questioned Goraya and his fellow bloggers about their links with Pakistan's governing party, then headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had to leave office himself last year after a court ruled he was morally unfit for office. The whole time, pro-military media kept reporting they had been arrested for running a social media page considered blasphemous.

"I think all this was designed by the military and the spy agency," Goraya says. "They wanted to punish us for our liberal political thoughts and used their best tool."

Goraya and the other activists had to flee the country to avoid expected attacks by mobs. They have not been back since then.

"It has changed my life. I have lost relatives and friends," Goraya told journalists on Tuesday while travelling from Germany to the Netherlands, where he now lives with his wife and son. "I blame the state and the army as an institution for my ordeal."

It is not only Goraya and bloggers. Implicating people with dissenting views in blasphemy charges has become part of a pattern in Pakistan. State and its institutions are often blamed for this.

In 2017, the country witnessed an increase in blasphemy-related violence and mob attacks, said Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The worse part was that the government continued to condone discriminatory prosecutions, the HRCP added in its annual report, which was released on Monday.

"State institutions like the military, parliament or the judiciary are either behind discrimination or do not react to correct the course," said I A Rehman, one of the founding members of HRCP.

Pakistan's parliament last year passed a law to place the members of the country's marginalised Ahmadiya community on separate voters lists, a move considered discriminatory by rights groups. A court in the capital, Islamabad, recently ordered all candidates for public sector jobs to declare their faith, something that could also be used to target the Ahmadiya community.

"We see space shrinking for us," said Amir Mehmood, a spokesman for Pakistan's Ahmadiya. Members of the community call themselves Muslim, but they were declared non-Muslims by Pakistan's constitution in 1974 for their views on the prophet Muhammad.

Most Muslims consider him the last in a long line of prophets. The Ahmadiya think there was one more after him, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed. Not only the Ahmadiya community, but people seen sympathising with them, also face threats, violence and mob attacks.

Pakistan's justice minister had to resign last year after followers of a radical cleric accused him of blasphemy after he changed an electoral law in a way that they perceived as softening the official stance towards the Ahmadiya.

Pakistan's former military ruler, Ziaul Haq, introduced the blasphemy law in 1980s under a Western-backed plan to Islamise the country, a move that helped in defeating Soviet Russia in Afghanistan by employing Islamic jihad.

No government since then has dared to change the law, fearing a backlash by a rising right-wing.    (dpa)

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