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In Pakistan, a Text Message Can Lead to a Death Sentence

Officials Lean on Abusive Blasphemy Law to Punish Free Speech

Students from Peshawar University protest to condemn the killing of Abdul Wali Khan university student Mashal Khan, after he was accused of blasphemy, during a protest in Peshawar, Pakistan April 19, 2017.  © 2017 Reuters

In Pakistan, a poem sent over WhatsApp can prove deadly.

On September 14, a court in Gujrat district, Punjab province sentenced to death Nadeem James, a 35-year-old Christian, for sending a poem to a friend that was deemed insulting to Islam. James denies ever having sent the message.

James isn’t the only person in Pakistan condemned to death over a post on social media.

In June, Taimoor Raza, 30, was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court in Bahawalpur district for allegedly making blasphemous comments during a Facebook chat with someone who eventually turned out be a counterterrorism agent on the prowl. In April 2014, a Christian couple were sentenced to death for sending a blasphemous text message to a local cleric. The couple claimed that they were illiterate and could not have sent a blasphemous text in English. Junaid Hafeez, a university professor, has been imprisoned for nearly four years facing a possible death sentence for accusations of sharing blasphemous material online. Hafeez’s lawyer was murdered in May 2014.

The abusive nature of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is not new. However, the increasing use of blasphemy provisions to jail and prosecute people for comments made on social media is a dangerous escalation. Many officials are using religious rhetoric and whipping up tensions over the issue of blasphemy. In March, the then-interior minister described blasphemers as “enemies of humanity” and expressed the intention of taking the matter of blasphemers to a “logical conclusion.” Although no one has yet been executed for the crime, Pakistan’s penal code makes the death penalty mandatory in blasphemy convictions. At least 19 people remain on death row.

Even accusations of blasphemy can be deadly. Since 1990, at least 60 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered.

Religious minorities are significantly overrepresented among those facing blasphemy charges, and are often victimized due to personal disputes. A death sentence for alleged blasphemy online in a country with low literacy rates and lack of familiarity with modern technology is an invitation for a witch-hunt. Pakistan needs to amend and ultimately repeal its blasphemy laws; not extend their scope to digital speech.

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