Pak Blocking Wikipedia Weeks After Tightening Blasphemy Laws Reinforces Dangerous Trend
Pakistan blocked Wikipedia for failing to remove offensive or blasphemous material, the country’s telecommunications body announced on Saturday. The move was taken after Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) degraded Wikipedia services countrywide and gave a 48-hour deadline threatening the website that it would be blocked if they did not remove “blasphemous content.”
While government officials have cited non-compliance with the orders on content identified by its regulatory authority, Wikimedia Foundation on Friday responded that “it does not make decisions around what content is included on Wikipedia or how that content is maintained”.
The free online encyclopedia Wikipedia is created and edited by volunteers worldwide and hosted by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit charitable organisation.
Pakistan’s Stringent Blasphemy Laws Amended
The Pakistan government’s decision comes weeks after changes were made to the country’s stringent blasphemy laws. On January 17, Pakistan’s National Assembly unanimously passed the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023, enhancing the minimum punishment for those who insult the revered personalities of Islam: the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, companions or close relatives, from three to 10 years along with a fine of Rs 1 million.
Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali of the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami party, who moved the bill in the National Assembly, had cited Section 298-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) in which the punishment against the person who disrespected the wives, family and companions of the Prophet was imprisonment for a minimum of three years along with a nominal penalty. He had contested that the punishment for insulting a member of Parliament was five years, but the same for disrespecting the revered personalities of Islam was three years.
The statement of objectives of the bill said disrespecting the companion of the Prophet and other personalities not only promoted terrorism and disruption in the country and hurt people from all walks of life.
The bill also makes the offence non-bailable, a change which has been denounced by human rights activists who have stated that it directly violates the constitutionally guaranteed right to personal liberty under Article 9.
History of Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan
Pakistan inherited its blasphemy laws in 1947 from its British colonial rulers, who had made it a criminal offence to commit “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religious belief.”
Pakistan’s brutal dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who had banned music and other fine arts featuring women in the Islamic nation, had introduced extensions of the laws between 1977 and 1988, including life imprisonment for people found guilty of defiling or desecrating the Holy Quran.
Later, the death penalty was made mandatory for anyone who committed disrespectful acts against the Prophet Muhammad.
Human Rights Violations
The amendment to the harsh law has been condemned by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which has noted that the enactment would further increase the persecution of minorities. “Given Pakistan’s troubled record of the misuse of such laws, these amendments are likely to be weaponised disproportionately against religious minorities and sects, resulting in false FIRs, harassment and persecution,” an official statement said.
According to a report by the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), a non-profit organisation in Islamabad, “as of 2021, 89 people have been extrajudicially killed, from roughly 1,500 accusations and cases.”
Pakistan’s top human rights body’s concerns over the blasphemy law being used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas have been noted with cases such as Aneeqa Ateeq, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison and death by hanging over posting “blasphemous material” as her WhatsApp status in 2021. Ateeq had accused the complainant of deliberately pulling her into a religious discussion so he could implicate her and take “revenge” after she refused “to be friendly” with him. The trial ending soon with Ateeq’s lawyer admitting to the crime, leading to the death sentence was also questioned following the global uproar over the matter.
In 2021, a Sri Lankan manager in a factory in Sialkot was tortured and lynched to death by a mob over the removal of a poster with Islamic holy verses. Later on, the mob desecrated the dead body and ablazed the same. A Lahore court in 2022 sentenced six men to death, gave life sentences to nine people, five years’ jail to one, and two-year sentences to 72 people in the case.
The human rights body said increasing the penalty for alleged blasphemy will aggravate misuse of the law. “At a time when civil society has been calling for amendments to these laws to prevent their abuse, strengthening this punishment will do the exact opposite,” it said.
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