Pakistan: Accusations of blasphemy continue to endanger lives

The alarming uptick in blasphemy accusations across Pakistan underscores the urgency with which the draconian laws that enable abuse and risk lives must be repealed, Amnesty International said today. 

The broad, vague and coercive nature of the blasphemy laws violate the rights to freedom of religion and belief and of opinion and expression. They have been used to target some of the most marginalized people in society, including children, individuals with mental disabilities, members of religious minorities, and poorer people.  

However, recent incidents in Pakistan indicate that the snare is widening to include artists, human rights defenders, and journalists as well.  

Pakistani authorities need no more evidence to see how dangerous the blasphemy laws are.
David Griffiths

“Pakistani authorities need no more evidence to see how dangerous the blasphemy laws are – they are abused to make false accusations that can, and have, led to unlawful killings and even whole communities being attacked and their homes burnt,” said David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary General of Amnesty International. 

Dangerous accusations 

On 13 August 2020, police filed a case against actor Saba Qamar and singer Bilal Saeed for shooting a music video in a mosque. The clip was released online and led to large protests in Lahore on 14 August 2020 during which the leaders of religious party Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) promised “vengeance” against the artists. 

On 31 October 2018 TLP held large rallies to protest the acquittal of Christian farmworker Asia Bibi, effectively shuttering the country for three days.  

Both Qamar and Saeed have published statements apologizing on their respective social media accounts, but their lives continue to be at risk.   

Threats for a tweet

Police also filed a case against journalist and human rights defender Marvi Sirmed under the blasphemy laws for a tweet she posted on 22 August 2020. Alongside this, she has also had a separate complaint registered against her with the Federal Investigative Agency under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act – another piece of legislation that has been criticized for endangering freedom of expression online.  

“Sirmed has previously been subjected to severe vitriol online and a blasphemy accusation will only embolden trolls in the cyberspace. A threat to her physical safety cannot be discounted,” said David Griffiths. 

“The threat of violence to her life and safety is paramount. There are more than enough precedents for how accusations can bolster vigilantes to take matters into their own hands. Pakistani authorities must immediately provide Sirmed with adequate protection.” 

Deadly consequences 

On 29 July 2020, a man with mental disabilities was fatally shot in the Peshawar High Court. Tahir Ahmad Naseem, 54 had been charged with blasphemy and was being presented in court for his trial. He was shot at least six times.  

Photos of him being lauded by police and lawyers alike surfaced online, chillingly reminiscent of the way bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri was celebrated after he killed his employer – and the person he was supposed to protect – governor Salmaan Taseer, for defending Asia Bibi. 

“The fear and violence that often follows a blasphemy accusation makes it easy to forget that the people of Pakistan do not have to be beholden to vigilantes who flagrantly abuse these laws. By ignoring the longstanding call to repeal the blasphemy laws, Pakistani authorities continue to create a permissive environment for brutality. But it does not have to be this way," said David Griffiths.