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Blasphemy charges create climate of fear for Pakistani media

AP  |  Islamabad 

Ahmad Waqas Goraya couldn't see anything through the black hood, but he could hear the screams.

A blogger with a penchant for criticising Pakistan's powerful military and taking the to task, Goraya was kidnapped in January along with four other bloggers.

"I could hear the screams of torture," he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, struggling for words as the memories flooded back. "I don't even want to think about what they did."

Even more terrifying was the accusation of blasphemy, punishable by death in Pakistan, hurled at him and his fellow bloggers. They were held in what Goraya called a "black site" on the edge of Lahore that some say is run by Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency.

Analysts say the blasphemy is a powerful tool to muzzle critics. Some say it is being used by extremists to silence moderates at a time when Pakistanis are increasingly speaking out against violence and extremism, and voicing support for a crackdown on Islamic militants.

In Pakistan, even the suggestion of blasphemy can be tantamount to a death sentence. It has incited extremists to take the into their own hands and kill alleged perpetrators, often forcing people to flee the country, as Goraya and the other bloggers have.

The heightened concerns earlier this week when it said it had asked Facebook and Twitter to ferret out Pakistanis posting religiously offensive material, promising to seek their extradition if they are out of the country and prosecute them on blasphemy charges.

In one high-profile case six years ago, Punjab Gov Salman Taseer was gunned down by one of his guards, who accused him of blasphemy because he criticised the and defended a Christian woman sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy.

"Right now they have made sure I cannot come back to by introducing blasphemy charges," Goraya said.

The lawyer who is arguing the case against the bloggers, Tariq Asad, has openly called for their deaths, while praising outlawed Sunni militant groups who want the country's minority Shiites declared non-Muslims.

"They should have been killed," Asad told the AP. "If I had the opportunity I would have killed them."

Asad smiled at the suggestion that invoking the blasphemy law subdues the media and frightens activists.

"They should be scared," he said.

The blasphemy charges against the bloggers being heard in Islamabad's High Court were filed by Salman Shahid, who has ties to Pakistan's Red Mosque, a hotbed of Islamic militancy where hundreds were killed in clashes with security forces in 2007. Asad is Shahid's lawyer.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Sat, March 18 2017. 22:28 IST