The Pakistani authorities must end their ongoing persecution of the Ahmadiyya religious minority, which is now extending across borders, said Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), following an attempt by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to shut down the website of the Ahmadis’ US-based community.
On 24 December 2020, the PTA sent a legal notice to the administrators of trueislam.com, stating that the site was in violation of Pakistan’s Constitution, and warning they could be charged with blasphemy – a charge potentially carrying the death penalty – for referring to themselves as Muslims. The site’s administrators have also been threatened with a fine of 500 million PKR (US$3.1 million) if they fail to take the website down.
Digitally policing Ahmadis on what they can or can't preach, no matter where they are, is a flagrant violation of Pakistan's legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political RightsSamira Hamidi, Deputy Regional Director at Amnesty International
The trueislam.com website provides general information about Ahmadi history and beliefs, details the work carried out by the Ahmadi community in the US, including blood drives and veterans’ support, and features interviews with prominent community members such as the actor Mahershala Ali.
“Ahmadis in Pakistan have long been the target of systematic attacks, and successive Pakistani governments have failed to respect, protect and promote their human rights, forcing many to flee to other countries. The PTA’s efforts to close down their US website shows that even then, a life free from discrimination can be out of reach,” said Samira Hamidi, Deputy Regional Director at Amnesty International.
“Digitally policing Ahmadis on what they can or can’t preach, no matter where they are, is a flagrant violation of Pakistan’s legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which the country is a state party. We urge the PTA to desist from its targeted campaign against Ahmadis and to ensure that everyone in Pakistan is able to express themselves and profess their religion freely, without fear of reprisals or discrimination.”
According to a PTA press release on 22 January 2021, access to trueislam.com has now been blocked in Pakistan. Amnesty International has been shown an email sent by the head of the PTA on 27 December 2020 to various servers in the country, instructing them to remove access to the website, along with three others related to the Ahmadi community.
“Pakistan has an obligation to protect the rights to freedom of expression and religion online every bit as much as in places of worship or in public spaces. Far from facilitating such protection, the PTA is extending its long arm to violate the rights of persons well beyond Pakistan’s own borders,” said Ian Seiderman, ICJ Legal and Policy Director.
The administrators of the website told Amnesty International that prior to receiving the notice, they received emails from various sources filled with hate speech.
“I was suddenly inundated with hate-filled messages from extremists on my email. And then a few days later, on December 24, the PTA emailed me a notice threatening criminal prosecution and fines for blasphemy and giving 24 hours to remove the trueislam.com website,” said Amjad Mahmood Khan, a US-based Ahmadi lawyer who was targeted.
The attempt to extend Pakistan’s persecution of Ahmadis to other jurisdictions is a dangerous escalationBrad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch
“It’s obvious the PTA seeks to prosecute US citizens operating a US-based website. This is an unprecedented act to extend the reach of Pakistan’s abominable blasphemy laws to US citizens, and it’s a new frontier in persecution for Ahmadis worldwide,” Khan said.
The legal notice to trueislam.com is part of a broader pattern of state overreach by the PTA in recent months, which has included issuing notices to Google and Wikipedia to remove “sacrilegious content”.
“The attempt to extend Pakistan’s persecution of Ahmadis to other jurisdictions is a dangerous escalation. The Pakistani government should end its policing of Ahmadi speech outside the country and focus on providing an enabling environment for free speech, expression, and freedom of religion inside Pakistan,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The Pakistani penal code explicitly discriminates against religious minorities and targets Ahmadis by prohibiting them from “indirectly or directly posing as a Muslim.” Ahmadis are banned from declaring or propagating their faith publicly, building mosques, or making the Muslim call for prayer. For more information on the persecution of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, see here.
On 25 December 2020, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority issued a press release saying that Google and Wikipedia had been issued notices. On 28 December 2020, the Lahore High Court Chief Justice Qasim Khan ordered the Federal Investigative Agency to issue notices to Google, stating that shutting down websites was not enough.
For more information about the law on blasphemy in Pakistan, see here.