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Pakistan’s Blasphemy Law Targets Youth on Social Media

Student, 22, Sentenced to Death; 17-year-old Gets Life in Prison

Police officers stand guard outside Multan jail after Junaid Hafeez, a university professor, was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, Multan, Pakistan, December 21, 2019. © 2019 Asim Tanveer/AP Photo

In Pakistan, a WhatsApp message – even an alleged one – can have deadly consequences. Last week, a court in Gujrat district, Punjab, sentenced a 22-year-old student to death on charges of sharing blasphemous pictures and videos. A 17-year-old student was sentenced to life imprisonment in the same case because Pakistani law prohibits the death sentence for child offenders.

Blasphemy is an offense punishable by death in Pakistan. And although Pakistan’s blasphemy law has long been used abusively to carry out personal vendettas or prosecute members of minority religious communities, the increasing use of blasphemy provisions to jail and prosecute people for comments made on social media is a dangerous escalation.

However, the Punjab case is not first time that someone has been condemned to death over a social media post.

Aneeqa Atiq, 26, remains on death row after a court in Rawalpindi district sentenced her to death in January 2022, for allegedly sharing blasphemous material via WhatsApp. Junaid Hafeez, a university professor, has been imprisoned for more than 10 years and is facing a possible death sentence for accusations of sharing blasphemous material on Facebook. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman,  was murdered in May 2014, an apparent reprisal for his willingness to defend people charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

In Pakistan, the mere accusation of blasphemy can put you at risk of physical harm. Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy. And on August 16, 2023, several hundred people attacked a Christian settlement in Faisalabad district, Punjab province, after two members of the community were accused of committing blasphemy.

Expanding the use of blasphemy cases against people for what they say or share on social media is an invitation for witch hunts.

The Pakistani government should amend and ultimately repeal its blasphemy laws, not further extend their scope online. 

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