A court in Pakistan has sentenced a woman to death over allegedly blasphemous messages sent over WhatsApp and Facebook.
Aneeqa Ateeq, 26, was found guilty and given a death sentence by a court in Rawalpindi on Wednesday after a complaint was registered against her under Pakistan’s draconian cybercrime and blasphemy laws
According to the charge sheet, Ateeq, 26, met her accuser, a fellow Pakistani, online in 2019 through a mobile gaming app and the pair began corresponding over WhatsApp.
He accused her of sending blasphemous caricatures of holy prophets, making remarks about “holy personages” on WhatsApp and using her Facebook account to transmit blasphemous material to other accounts. In doing so, she “deliberately and intentionally defiles sacred righteous personalities and insulted the religious beliefs of Muslims”, according to the charge sheet.
Ateeq, who has stated that she is a practising Muslim, denied all the charges. During the trial, Ateeq told the court that she believed the complainant intentionally dragged her into a religious discussion so he could collect evidence and take “revenge” after she refused to be friendly with him.
The court found her guilty, gave her to a 20-year sentence and ordered her to be hanged.
Ateeq’s lawyer Syeda Rashida Zainab said: “I can’t comment on the judgment as the issue is very sensitive.”
Pakistan is an Islamic state and has some of the harshest blasphemy laws in the world, regularly handing down death sentences. In practice executions are not carried out and the accused spend their lives in jail.
However, blasphemy trials in Pakistan are highly dangerous, with the accused often killed by vigilantes before courts reach a verdict on their cases, while judges, fearful of the implications, rarely acquit the accused and are often pressured into reaching guilty verdicts.
Pakistan has recently asked Facebook and Twitter to help identify its citizens suspected of blasphemy so it can prosecute them or pursue their extradition.
While minorities such as Christians and Hindus have largely been targeted by the laws, Pakistani Muslims have also found themselves facing blasphemy charges. The cases often take place quickly, in a closed court, away from public scrutiny.
Evidence in many of the cases has been thrown into doubt. Pastor Zafar Bhatti, Pakistan’s longest-serving blasphemy prisoner, who was been accused of sending blasphemous text messages abusing the prophet Muhammad’s mother, has alleged the texts were sent by a number that did not belong to him. Bhatti was recently sentenced to death for the charges.
In recent years social media has become the new frontier for blasphemy cases. The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), passed in 2016, gave the government greater powers to control content posted on social media, including content deemed blasphemous.
In 2017, Taimoor Raza was the first person sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy on Facebook, one of the first steps towards an intensified crackdown on dissent on social media after the passing of cyber laws.
The issue of blasphemy remains highly sensitive in Pakistan. Last month a Sri Lankan national working in a factory in Pakistan was beaten to death and his body was set alight by a mob of hundreds of people after he was accused of committing blasphemy by removing religious posters from the factory walls.
According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, about 80 people in Pakistan are in prison for blasphemy, with at least half sentenced to death, though there have been no executions.