Pakistan – Treatment of Atheists and Bloggers – September, 2017

On 1 February 2017, the Pakistan Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) received a complaint filed against five human rights defenders, Ahmed Raza Naseer, Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed and Samar Abbas, for allegedly committing blasphemy on social media (which is illegal under Section 295 C of the Blasphemy law and the Anti-Terrorism Act.).  The FIA subsequently clarified that no case has yet been registered, but they are evaluating the complaint. The five human rights defenders were disappeared for at least three weeks in January 2017. The whereabouts of one, Samar Abbas, remains unknown.

Salman Haider is a human rights defender and a professor at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi. He has been working on minority rights, particularly in Balochistan where he has been critical about enforced disappearances. Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed are both human rights defenders and co-administrators of a Facebook page, Mochi and Group: Citizens for Secular Democracy, where they campaign for human rights and religious freedom. Their blog involves reports on human rights violations committed by security forces and religious extremists in Pakistan. This Facebook page is no longer accessible. Ahmed Raza Naseer is a human rights defender and was administrator of a Facebook page, since shut down, that reported on human rights violations committed by security forces and religious extremists in Pakistan. Samar Abbas is the president of the Civil Progressive Alliance Pakistan (CPAP). CPAP is a human rights group based in Karachi which campaigns for human rights and religious freedom. Their blog reports on human rights violations committed by security forces and religious extremists in Pakistan. Samar Abbas also worked in Karachi with various internet forums that report on the oppression of Pakistan’s ethnic and religious minority groups.

On 4 January 2017, Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed were reported missing from Wapda Town, Lahore. On 6 January 2017, Salman Haider disappeared from Islamabad. On 7 January 2017, Samar Abbas was travelling from Karachi to Islamabad for business. His family reported that he was in continuous communication with them until 7 January 2017 when his mobile phone was switched off and he became uncontactable. On 7 January 2017, Ahmed Raza Naseer was taken from his family’s shop in Punjab province by unidentified men.

Following the disappearance of the four human rights defenders, a number of smear campaigns were initiated on Facebook pages which framed the writings of the bloggers as blasphemous and called for them to be persecuted under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Blasphemy is punishable by the death in Pakistan. This is part of an ongoing trend which has seen conservative groups in the country lobby the government to register more such cases. One particular Facebook page, which has 400,000 likes, also issued accusations that the human rights defenders were in receipt of funding from the Indian intelligence agency

On 28 January 2017, four of the five human rights defenders, Ahmed Raza Naseer, Salman Haider,  Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed were released separately. Salman Haider returned home without commenting on his disappearance. Shortly after his release Waqas Goraya  left the country.  Waqas Goraya’s father declined to comment on who had detained the human rights defender. Asim Saeed has also left the country.  Asim Saeed’s father reported that the family of the human rights defender had received death threats, with one text message saying “You who have blasphemed deserve death. You are out of Islam and should be ready for a painful punishment, which will be remembered by your generations to come.”  Ahmed Raza Naseer has also been freed. The whereabouts of the fifth human rights defender, Samar Abbas, remain unknown.

In August 2016, the Pakistani government introduced a cybercrimes law which is being used to hamper digital freedom of expression. Under this law, the government is able to censor online content, criminalize internet user activity and access internet users’ data without judicial review.[1]

More than 200,000 websites are banned in the country because of their allegedly anti-Islamic, pornographic, or blasphemous content.[2]

Pakistan has failed to take positive measures to secure these human rights for Atheists, Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims, Secularists, and other minorities, despite having ratified the treaty and agreeing to guarantee these rights to all within its territory.

Detained Pakistani Bloggers Face Blasphemy Charges An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has put three online bloggers in the custody of a federal agency for a week so it can investigate blasphemy charges against them and determine whether they should be formally tried and punished. Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, or FIA, arrested the three men earlier this week as part of an ongoing crackdown on suspects involved in posting blasphemous material on social media. Authorities say that laptops of the detainees have also been seized for forensic analysis.[3]

Being an atheist in Pakistan can be life-threatening. But behind closed doors, non-believers are getting together to support one another. Omar, named after one of Islam’s most revered caliphs, has rejected the faith of his forefathers. He is one of the founding members of an online group – a meeting point for the atheists of Pakistan.

But even there he must stay on his guard. Members use fake identities. In Pakistan, posting about atheism online can have serious consequences.

Under a recently passed cyber-crime law, it is now illegal to post content online – even in a private forum – that could be deemed blasphemous.

The government took out adverts in national newspapers asking members of the public to report any content they believe could constitute blasphemy. And the law is being enforced. In June this year, in the first case of its kind, Taimoor Raza was sentenced to death for posting blasphemous content on Facebook. As a result, atheists feel their ability to publicly question the existence of God is threatened.

Omar believes the government is at war with atheist bloggers. “A good friend of mine used to write against religious fundamentalism,” he says. “We used to run the [online] group together. I came to know he was very severely tortured. Once you are abducted, there is a high chance your body will come in a bag. “The state is doing it deliberately, so those remaining get a sign that if you go beyond your limits you will also be facing things like this.”

In recent years, they say, the Islamic faith has become more visible in public life. Saudi-style dress codes are increasingly enforced. Television evangelists shape pop culture and to be Pakistani is increasingly linked to being a devout Muslim.

Although atheism is not technically illegal in Pakistan, apostasy is deemed to be punishable by death in some interpretations of Islam. As a result, speaking publicly can be life-threatening. Many Pakistani atheists meet at secret, invitation-only gatherings.[4]

Converts from Islam and atheists may also be vulnerable to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which prescribes life imprisonment for desecrating or defiling the Quran and the death sentence to anyone for using derogatory remarks towards the Prophet Mohamed.[5]

State and non-state actors continued to discriminate against religious minorities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in law and practice. Blasphemy laws remained in force and several new cases were registered, mostly in Punjab. The laws violated the rights to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion. Minorities, particularly Ahmadis, Hazaras and Dalits, continued to face restricted access to employment, health care, education and other basic services.[6]

At least 19 people remained on death row after being convicted under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law and hundreds awaited trial. Most of those facing blasphemy are members of religious minorities, often victimized by these charges due to personal disputes.[7]

Sections 295 and 298 of Pakistan’s Penal Code criminalize acts and speech that insult a religion or religious beliefs or defile the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, a place of worship, or religious symbols. These provisions inherently violate international standards of freedom of religion or belief, as they protect beliefs over individuals. Accusers are not required to present any evidence that blasphemy occurred, which leads to abuse, including false accusations. Moreover, the law sets severe punishments, including death or life in prison.

The majority of all blasphemy cases in Pakistan occur in Punjab Province, where the majority of Pakistan’s religious minorities reside. USCIRF is aware of at least 40 individuals currently sentenced to death or serving life sentences for blasphemy in Pakistan.[8]

About Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan (AAAP)

About Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan (AAAP) is a federation of atheist and free thoughts groups and individuals, committed to educating its members and the public about atheism, secularism and related issues. AAAP’s vision is a secular Pakistan where public policy, scientific inquiry and education are not influenced by religious beliefs, but based upon sound reasoning, rationality and evidence. AAAP’s mission is to challenge and confront religious faith, to strengthen atheism by promoting the growth and interaction of atheist/freethinkers in Pakistan.

AAAP was founded by Fauzia Ilyas & Syed A Gilani in April 2012.

AAAp is a member of the Atheist Alliance International, an umbrella organization of groups and individuals in the United States and around the world committed to promoting and defending reason and the atheist worldview.

Founder of the Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan – for Secular Pakistan Fauzia Ilyas received the ‘International Atheist of the Year 2017’ award.

The ‘International Atheist of the Year’ award has been awarded since 2014 at the Polish Days of Atheism which involves an international conference on Atheism and secularism and an annual commemoration of the execution for Atheism of 17th century Polish philosopher Kazimierz Lyszczynski.[9]

 

[1] Front Line Defenders – Disappearance of Ahmed Raza Naseer, 3 February 2017, available at: https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/disappearance-ahmed-raza-naseer (accessed 6 September 2017)

[2] Freedom House – Freedom in the world 2017 – Pakistan, available at: https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/pakistan (accessed 6 September 2017)

[3] Atheist Ireland; Evangelical Alliance of Ireland; Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland: Submission to UN Human Rights Committee; Regarding Examination of Pakistan under the ICCPR; 120th Session 3-28 July 2017, 2017 (published by UN Human Rights Committee, available at ecoi.net)

 (accessed 6 September 2017)

[4] BBC News – Pakistan’s secret atheists, 12 July 2017, available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40580196 (accessed 6 September 2017)

[5] United Kingdom: Home Office, Country Information and Guidance – Pakistan: Christians and Christian converts, May 2016, Version 2.0, available at:

[accessed 6 September 2017]

[6] Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2016/17 – Pakistan, 22 February 2017, available at:

[accessed 6 September 2017]

[7] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2017 – Pakistan, 12 January 2017, available at:

[accessed 6 September 2017]

[8] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2017 – Tier 1: USCIRF-recommended Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) – Pakistan, 26 April 2017, available at:

[accessed 6 September 2017]

[9] SIAWI – Secularism is a Women’s Isssue, Founder of Atheist and Agnostic Alliance Pakistan – for Secular Pakistan receives International atheist of the year award, 31 July 2017, available at: http://www.siawi.org/article15019.html (accessed 6 September 2017)