WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE THROWN IN JAIL FOR POSTING ON FACEBOOK
THE FOUR MEN who shuffled into an antiterrorism court in Islamabad, Pakistan, on a mid-October morning were shackled together, a chain leash extending from each of their handcuffs into the hands of a supervising police officer. One was a college professor, one a self-proclaimed religious revivalist, another a small business owner, one an employee in an oil company. They said they did not know one another—or, rather, had not known one another until they found themselves standing trial in a case that had by then dragged on for 18 months. This was the other, more tenuous link between them: They had all been accused of committing blasphemy on the internet.
It was a slow court day in the Pakistani capital. The lawyer for two of the defendants, the revivalist and the businessman, had not shown up. The judge was exasperated. He scolded them, warning that he might make the two defendants cross-examine witnesses themselves, then adjourned the hearing, to the annoyance of the other two. “I don’t even know them,” protested the professor, his manner imperious despite the shackles. “Why are we being tried together?”
The professor was accused of blaspheming during his classroom lectures; someone had made a recording of him speaking. The revivalist—more precisely a religious reformer, who in this case believed he was divinely ordained—was accused of espousing sacrilegious views on a Facebook page.
But the longest litany of accusations were against Muhammad Ali (a pseudonym), the small business owner: According to the charge sheet, he had used a “cyber codename”—an alias, ostensibly—to run a Facebook page that posted anti-Islamic material and promoted atheism. He was also accused of running a website called Realistic Approach for the same purpose, and he was charged with translating and uploading a banned book called Rangeela Rasul, which translates to “colorful prophet.” The fourth defendant was alleged to have helped him.
Ali categorically denied these charges. He ran a small computer store in the southern city of Karachi, dealing in desktops and used processors. Business had withered in recent years—everyone owned a smartphone these days and had increasingly little use for his clunky machines. Forty-seven years old and the father of three, he had been toying with the idea of emigrating to the United Arab Emirates in search of work, but in the months before his arrest in March 2017 he’d fallen out with his travel agent. In the ensuing weeks, as he was taken into remand, he wondered: Who had framed him, and why?
Blasphemy cases in Pakistan begin as local disputes even when they morph into national flash points, and in many instances a bit of digging reveals motivations other than religious offense: a bruised ego, a land dispute, a quarrel in a fruit orchard. In almost all cases, according to multiple lawyers who work on them, the accuser is known to the accused. But Ali said he had no idea who had painstakingly downloaded the contentious material, taken screenshots of offensive social media posts, tracked down his identification details, and prepared a CD that was then dropped off at the nearest cybercrime center, nearly 1,000 miles away from where Ali lived and worked.