Pakistani police prevent clerics’ rally against blasphemy

Pakistani police prevent clerics' rally against blasphemy

ISLAMABAD — Pakistani police blocked a rally on Friday in Islamabad by clerics seeking to press their calls for the death of social media activists accused of insulting Islam — an offence punishable by death in this Islamic country.

Hundreds of security forces sealed off and surrounded the Red Mosque, long seen as a refuge for Islamic militants in the Pakistani capital, and the home of a religious leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, preventing his followers from staging the gathering.

The clerics vowed to try again next week, having already launched blasphemy charges in the Islamabad High Court against five bloggers, who were held for nearly three weeks in January.

The bloggers — who went missing but were later returned unhurt to their families — have accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency of orchestrating their disappearance because of their criticism of the military and intelligence agencies.

Before their release, hard-liners raised the accusations of blasphemy. Abdul Aziz’ son-in-law and follower, Salman Shahid, went to court to charge all five bloggers with blasphemy. The five have since fled the country after also receiving death threats.

Amid the hearings in the court case, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government launched a campaign in an effort to rid social media of any content considered insulting to Islam — at least any posted by Pakistanis.

The government petitioned Facebook and Twitter to identify Pakistanis worldwide who are found posting material considered offensive to Islam so that Pakistani authorities can prosecute them or pursue their extradition on charges of blasphemy — tantamount to a death sentence.

Earlier, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Khan said a Facebook delegation was expected in Pakistan within weeks.

Meanwhile, the Center for Inquiry, a U.S.-based advocacy group, appealed to Facebook not to consider the censorship demands by Pakistani authorities.

As well as writing a letter to Facebook, Michael De Dora, of the advocacy group, said members of his organization are also taking their concerns about Pakistan’s online crackdown to the United Nations and Washington.

“We have taken to the floor of the U.N. Human Rights Council to raise Pakistan’s crackdowns on online expression, and communicated our concerns directly with the State Department and Facebook,” De Dora said in an email exchange this week. “But it is difficult to tell if our efforts have achieved anything. “

Haroon Baloch, of the Islamabad-based think-tank BytesForAll said social media are also widely used by those espousing harsh and exclusive interpretations of Islam. Platforms like Facebook are used to attack Shiite Muslims as well as adherents of minority religions in Pakistan such as Christians and Hindus.

While Pakistan has ordered shut more than 900 web addresses linked to banned religious groups, Baloch said many still maintain social media platforms like Facebook, where they spew hate and even raise funds.

Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press