Pakistani woman sentenced to death for blasphemy: All you need to know about the Anika Attique case

A Pakistani woman was sentenced to death on Wednesday for sending blasphemous WhatsApp messages to an estranged friend. The 26-year-old woman, Anika Attique, was found guilty by a Rawalpindi court following a complaint filed in 2020 against her by Farooq Hassanat

FP Staff January 20, 2022 14:19:30 IST
Pakistani woman sentenced to death for blasphemy: All you need to know about the Anika Attique case

Representational image. AFP

A Pakistani woman was sentenced to death on Wednesday for sending blasphemous WhatsApp messages to an estranged friend.

The 26-year-old woman, Anika Attique, was found guilty by a Rawalpindi court following a complaint filed in 2020 against her by Farooq Hassanat.

As the issue of blasphemy remains a sensitive issue in Pakistan, we take a look at Anika Attique’s case and earlier such cases when insulting religious text and beliefs has put people on the wrong side of the law:

What is the Anika Attique case:

According to a report by The Guardian, Attique met Hassanat, a fellow Pakistani, online in 2019 on a mobile gaming app and the duo started talking to each other over WhatsApp.

Hassanat accused Attique of sending blasphemous caricatures of the holy prophet and making remarks about “holy personage” on WhatsApp. He added that Attique used her Facebook account to transmit blasphemous material to other accounts.

Hassanat asked Attique to delete the messages and say sorry for her action, but she refused, which led him to file a complaint against her with the cybercrime wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).

According to the chargesheet, she “deliberately and intentionally defiles sacred righteous personalities and insulted the religious beliefs of Muslims”.

While denying all charges, Attique argued that after she refused to be friendly with him, he coaxed her into a religious discussion so he could collect evidence and take “revenge” on her.

Attique added that she is a practising Muslim.

However, the court found her guilty and sentenced her to 20 years in prison and ordered her to be hanged.

What are Pakistan’s blasphemy laws

Simply put, anyone who insults Islam in any sense may face a potential death sentence.

According to the BBC,laws related to religion were first enacted by India’s British rulers in 1860, which were later expanded in 1927.

These laws made it a criminal offence to disturb a religious assembly, trespass on burial grounds, insult religious beliefs or intentionally destroy or defile a place or an object of worship.

However, the punishment wasn’t as severe as a death sentence. The maximum punishment under the British laws ranged from one year to 10 years in jail, with or without a fine.

Pakistan adopted these laws after the partition of India in 1947. In a bid to “Islamicise” these laws, the military government of General Zia-ul Haw added a number of clauses to them between 1980 to 1986.

The laws were amended in several installments starting from 1980 when making derogatory remarks against Islamic personage. The maximum punishment was three years in jail.

In 1982, a “wilful” desecration of the Koran prescribed life imprisonment. In 1986, another clause was added to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. The crime would entail punishment of “death, or imprisonment for life”, in that order.

As per the BBC report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) - a voluntary organisation - which has been documenting blasphemy cases for decades, says that Muslims make the majority of those booked under these laws, closely followed by the Ahmadi community.

Zia-ul Haq’s regime also made amendments in the law to legally separate the Ahmadi community, declared non-Muslim in 1973, from the main body of Pakistan's overwhelmingly Muslim population.

Past incidents of blasphemy in Pakistan

While there has been no legal execution of death sentence for blasphemy in Pakistan so far, these trials can get dangerous with the accused often getting killed by vigilantes before courts reach a verdict on their cases.

Let’s take a look at the past incidents of blasphemy in Pakistan, where more often than not the public executed the accused before reaching the courts:

– In jail since 2012, Pastor Zafar Bhatti is Pakistan’s longest serving blasphemy convict. A sessions court in Rawalpindi sentenced him to death on 6 January 2022.

Bhatti was accused of sending blasphemous text messages abusing Prophet Mohammad’s mother. As per US Commission for International Religious Freedom, Bhatti was tortured into confessing the crime.

– On 3 December 2021, an angry mob tortured a Sri Lankan export manager to death and then burnt his body. The incident took place in Sialkot’s Wazirabad Road. The Sri Lankan man allegedly tore a poster of the hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in which Quranic verses were inscribed and threw it in the dustbin.

– In April 2017, an angry mob lynched university student Mashal Khan when he was accused of posting blasphemous content online.

– In May 2017, a mob of about 500 people attacked a police station in Pakistan’s Balochistan province where a 34-year-old Hindu man was held for allegedly posting blasphemous images on social media.

– In 2017, Taimoor Raza became the first person to be sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy on Facebook. Under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), passed in 2016, Pakistan government assumed greater powers to control content posted online, and even take action against those who post content that is deemed blasphemous.

– A Christian couple was lynched then burnt in a kiln in Punjab in 2014 after being falsely accused of desecrating the Koran

– Not just blasphemy accused, but even the life of those who try to defend them is at risk in Pakistan. In May 2014, a lawyer, Rashid Rehman, died by “indiscriminate firing” at him in his office.

As per a report by the BBC, Rehman was targeted for defending Junaid Hafeez, a lecturer at Bahauddin Zakariya University, who was accused by hardline student groups of making derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad in March 2020.

– Perhaps the most talked about blasphemy case is that of Asia Bibi that is also one of the few cases when the accused was acquitted. A Christian by religion, Asia Bibi was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in 2010.

After a nine-year long legal battle, she was allowed to leave Pakistan and reunite with her family in Canada. The case, however, did not end before taking two lives.

Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who had spoken in Asia’s defence, was gunned down by his own bodyguard in January 2011. The bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, was hanged in February 2016 for the assassination.

With inputs from agencies

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