An Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) on Saturday sentenced a man to death for sharing blasphemous content about Islam on social media, a government prosecutor said – the first such prosecution in the country. There is scant detail on the case beyond the fact that the accused was a 30 year old Shia from Bahawalpur. Little can be said on the case beyond the observation that the punishment for what is essentially a victimless crime is disproportionately and inhumanely high – death for a few misguided sentences on social media, with no chance for rehabilitation or apology.
The shifting of this ‘crime’ to the online sphere has created its own set of complications which make the application of this already onerous law all the more problematic. Over the course of the past few years – particularly during the US election – social media has become a hotbed of misleading and blatantly false misinformation.
It is very easy to fake content online an attribute it to someone else.
As we saw in the aftermath of the Mashal Khan lynching, efforts were made to posthumously create and post blasphemous content in the name of Mashal Khan to justify the murder – a charge that was mercifully debunked. Not every investigation will be conducted under such high scrutiny and not every investigator in the Pakistani police is equipped to differentiate between the real and the doctored.
Under a law where the criminal act is so loosely defined and the punishment so final, not being able to distinguish between misinformation and the actions of a person is another – cruel – wrinkle in the equation.
The incident also raises question on the priorities of our government and police department. The Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) carried out the investigation and the arrest; a department that was created to combat real terrorism and terrorists is instead sitting in its office scouring the internet for blasphemy. The last successful arrest and prosecution of a major terrorist by the CTD escapes memory, in fact for the most part it has given over this responsibility to the army, but it can spend time and resources arresting non-threats.
With the incident of Mashal Khan so recent in our memories this prosecution serves only to remind us that what happened in Mardan is not only the fault of a few conniving students and employees, but the byproduct of a larger system that says “death to the blasphemer”. It is difficult to condemn people who kill in the name of blasphemy when the state is doing the same.