Month: June 2017

Death sentence for Facebook post in Pakistan – and the social media giant stays silent

A Facebook user, Taimoor Raza (30), has been handed a death sentence by an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan.

Taimoor Raza, in a photograph widely shared in media coverage

The International Humanist and Ethical Union has some detail:

Taimoor Raza was accused of making a post that made “derogatory” remarks about the Prophet Mohammad and his family in a way that was interpreted as “sectarian”. According to reports, he was initially arrested after allegedly playing “blasphemous” material on his phone at a bus stop in Bahawalpur.

The counter-terrorism court in Bahawapur found him guilty and sentenced him to death, on 8 June. The conviction may be appealed at the High Court and the Supreme Court.

The IHEU understands that Taimoor Raza has a Shia Muslim background and is from Lahore. As an active social media user, he comments on diverse issues around politics, social, religious and sectarian problems. A man named Muhammad Sadiq appears to have provoked a discussion with him on Facebook, and it later transpired that Sadiq works in counter-terrorism. Muhammad Sadiq cited a “sectarian” comment to file an initial case at Bahawalpur against Raza, accusing him of “blasphemy”. Initially, an FIR (first information report) was registered under article 298-A, with a maximum sentence of 2 years in prison.

However, later 295-C and “terrorism” charges were added to the FIR. Bahawalpur Judge Shabbir Ahmad passed the sentence on 8 June.

Taimoor Raza’s attorney complains that his client is sentenced under two irrelevant and contradictory articles.

This is just the latest in several horrific injustices related to “blasphemy” accusations this year in Pakistan, including enforced disappearances, a social media crackdown and arrests of “atheists”, and the murder of “humanist” student Mashal Khan.

The BBC points out that:

Facebook itself has yet to comment on the case.

The US firm previously announced in March that it was deploying a team to Pakistan to address the government’s concerns about blasphemous content on its service, but added that it still wished to protect “the privacy and rights” of its members.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has described blasphemy as being an “unpardonable offence”.

There are no charge papers yet, and they may not be some for some time. Many prior “blasphemy” cases take years to get through the court system, from initial trial and appeal. The conviction rate is high and appeals courts rarely release “blasphemers”. In similar situations to Taimoor Raza, many of those convicted remain on death row in perpetuity under a moratorium on the death penalty for all but terror offences. The road ahead for Taimoor Raza looks extremely bleak.

Canadian government bill could repeal “obsolete” law on “blasphemous libel”

Following quickly on from Malta and Denmark, it now looks like Canada is about to repeal its antiquated “blasphemy” law!

Yesterday (Tuesday 6 June) the Canadian government tabled Bill C-51 (2017): an act to amend parts of the Criminal Code and other laws. One of the objectives of the bill is to remove “obsolete and/or redundant provisions” of the Canadian Criminal Code, including section 296 – which criminalizes “blasphemous libel”.

Section 296 of the Criminal Code states that anyone who publishes a “blasphemous libel” could face up to two years imprisonment.

The repeal bill would also remove other outdated and unconstitutional provisions, as well as strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault.

With the Liberals holding a majority in Parliament, there is good reason to believe the amendments will be adopted, especially since the proposal is tabled by a Liberal MP.

However, there is some doubt about whether other provisions, for example on sexual assault, could prove controversial with Conservative MPs and derail the entire bill.

In 2016, nearly 7500 Canadians signed a petition calling on the government to repeal the law, resulting in a government commitment to address the provision.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director of the BC Humanist Association comments:

We continue to see people subjected to investigation and prosecution for blasphemy from Jakarta to Dublin. Today’s news is a good step toward Canada joining the ranks of Denmark, Malta, Iceland and England and Wales who have all abolished their blasphemy laws in the past decade.

This bill is a step towards upholding freedom of expression and freedom of religion. We urge all MPs and Senators to rally behind this bill and ensure its speedy passage through Parliament.

Blasphemy law abolished in Denmark!

Today, Friday 2 June, the Danish parliament has voted to end centuries of “blasphemy” law!

Rumours had been confirmed earlier this week that the ruling ‘Venstre’ party would join other parties including the socialist opposition ‘Enhedslisten’, which proposed the abolition, in voting for an abolition, making this morning’s vote more or less a done deal.

The “blasphemy” law was abolished by a majority of 75 – 27.

The Danish Humanist Society, Humanistisk Samfund, a partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, has had abolition as a goal from the founding of the organisation, almost ten years ago.

A breakdown of the successful vote to end blasphemy laws in Denmark!


The road to abolition

In Denmark the “blasphemy” law was section 140 in the Penal Code, which stipulated that a person could be punished for publicly ridiculing religious belief or worship. The penalty ranges from fines to four months in prison.

In the wake of the 2005 Muhammad cartoon crisis, there was considerable debate in Denmark about whether or not the publisher or cartoonists should be prosecuted for “blasphemy”, but no case was raised. It nevertheless began a conversation about the nature of “blasphemy” laws and freedom of expression. At that time, the government decided not abolish the law.

In 2015 a Penal Advisory Board in 2015 made a report on the possible use of the blasphemy law and stated that “blasphemy” might include for example the burning of holy books, and argued that therefore the law had a positive use!

Indeed, the Danish Blasphemy Law was used in 2017 for the first time since 1946: a man was accused of “blasphemy” for burning a copy of the Koran in his back yard, and posting a video of this action on a closed Facebook group which contained some bigoted content.

As a result of the book-burning prosecution, the socialists in ‘Enhedslisten’ with backing from the ‘Dansk Folkeparti’ (right wing Danish Peoples party) filed the proposal to abolish the “blasphemy” law.

The political discussion in the run-up to the vote centred around two issues: freedom of speech vs blasphemy, and a hypothetical alleged increase in the threat of terrorism that abolition of the law might trigger. The latter was an argument that was relatively new to the debate, and critics of the law roundly rejected the logic.

In a Twitter thread, the End Blasphemy Laws campaign said: “This is deeply confused: around the world anti-blasphemy terror correlates with blasphemy laws, not their absence. … Moreover, such a rationale effectively blames those exercising liberties for the terrorist’s response. A dangerous path. … Other things that might ‘increase the risk’ of extremists responding violently include sexual equality, LGBT rights, freedom, democracy! … Outlawing the things that extremist religious terrorists don’t like only lends them false legitimacy. End blasphemy laws! Resist terror!”

During political discussions on the proposal, the green, center-liberal, anti-establishment party ‘Alternativet’ at one stage appeared to have the deciding votes. One of the trademarks of ‘Alternativet’ is to handle decision making in a member-oriented way, and the party streamed a meeting of the parliamentary group, inviting speakers for and against abolition, as well as comments from the public, then left the decision on the parliamentary votes to the members of the party in an online poll. The members voted in favour of ending the “blasphemy” law.

Of the three parties in the government, ‘Konservative’ and ‘Liberal Alliance’ announced a long time ago that they would vote for abolition, but the Prime Minister’s party ‘Venstre’ said it would await an investigation into experiences in Netherlands and Norway who only recently abolished their “blasphemy” laws.

Today’s decisive vote means the end of “blasphemy” in yet another European country. Norway, Iceland, Malta, one French province, and now Denmark, have all abolished their historical “blasphemy” laws since 2015.