Home News Pakistan's WhatsApp death sentence case spotlights blasphemy law

Pakistan’s WhatsApp death sentence case spotlights blasphemy law

Pakistan’s sentencing of a 22-year-old to death for images he sent on WhatsApp has renewed concerns about the country’s use of strict blasphemy laws to crack down on social media posts.

Rights groups say blasphemy laws in the Muslim-majority country are often used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal scores – warning that artificial intelligence (AI) tools can be used to create deepfakes to entrap people.

Just accusing someone of the crime can lead to mob justice. Last year, angry Muslims burnt churches and houses in a Christian settlement, and in a separate incident, a man was beaten to death after being accused of blasphemy.

Here are some details about the latest case, the law, and why human rights groups and tech analysts are concerned. 

What happened in the WhatsApp case?

In March this year, a judge sentenced 22-year-old law student Junaid Munir to death for sharing derogatory pictures and videos of the Prophet Mohammad over WhatsApp. A 17-year-old co-accused was given a life sentence.

Both of the accused denied wrongdoing.

Munir’s father, who said his son had been falsely accused by relatives due to a long-running family dispute, said an appeal had been launched over his son’s conviction.

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A senior official at Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), which investigated the case, said social media users should heed the country’s blasphemy law.

“If we are using social media, we should conduct ourselves properly,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

What does Pakistan’s blasphemy law say?

Under the law, the death penalty or life imprisonment can be used to punish anyone convicted of making “derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly”.

Although no one has ever been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, convictions are common, though most are overturned on appeal. However, mobs have lynched dozens of people before their cases were even brought to trial.

Hundreds of people languish in prison on remand after being accused of blasphemy because judges often put off trials, fearing retribution if they are seen as being too lenient, campaigners say.

Last year, at least 329 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, the Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice said.

Why are rights groups worried?

Rights groups say there is evidence that blasphemy laws are increasingly being used to prosecute people for social media comments.

Junaid was also charged under cybercrime legislation – the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the latest in a string of online blasphemy cases.

A court in 2022 sentenced a woman to death for sending blasphemous messages on WhatsApp and Facebook.   

“It is absolutely terrifying how technology can and is being used to weaponize this law further,” said Saroop Ijaz, the Pakistan representative for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW said expanding blasphemy provisions to social media was an “invitation for witch hunts”, and urged Pakistan to repeal the law rather than extend its scope online.

The FIA official said blasphemy complaints were always investigated thoroughly.

“We investigate them threadbare to ensure there is not a shred of doubt, or that the complainant is not using it as a tool for vendetta,” the official said.

Pakistan’s religious right has consistently blocked attempts to reform or repeal the law. Authorities have said the law actually shields people accused of blasphemy, arguing that repealing it would give Islamists a license to kill.

Farieha Aziz, co-founder of the digital rights advocacy group Bolo Bhi, said parts of the PECA legislation were routinely used against journalists, academics, and political workers.

The biggest worry, however, is the increasing trend of accounts being hacked or impersonated, which had the potential to fatally incite popular anger under false pretenses, she said.

Nighat Dad, who heads the Digital Rights Foundation, said police needed the advanced forensic tools and resources to verify blasphemy online, given the rise of deepfakes and AI-generated content.

“This is a very dangerous trend, especially in a country like Pakistan, where blasphemy is such a sensitive issue,” said Dad.

(Reporting by Zofeen T. Ebrahim, Editing by Annie Banerji, Jon Hemming and Helen Popper.)

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