ISLAMABAD / AP
Ahmad Waqas Goraya couldn’t see anything through the black hood, but he could hear the screams.
A blogger with a penchant for criticizing Pakistan’s powerful military and taking the government 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
Analysts say the blasphemy law 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 militants.
In Pakistan, even the suggestion of blasphemy can be tantamount to a death sentence. It has incited extremists to take the law into their own hands and kill alleged perpetrators, often forcing people to flee the country, as Goraya and the other
The government 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 criticized the law and defended a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
“Right now they have made sure I cannot come back to Pakistan by introducing
blasphemy charges,” Goraya 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 militancy where hundreds were killed in clashes with security forces in 2007.
Zahid Hussain, a defense analyst and author of several books on militancy in the region, said invoking the blasphemy law is a form of ‘pushback’ against the proliferation of news outlets and social media that
amplify moderate voices. Extremists “are trying to reassert themselves with this ideological battle and the easiest thing for them to use is the blasphemy law,” he said.
Hamid Mir, a popular Pakistani news anchor, says both media owners and journalists operate under a cloud of fear. Threats come from a variety of quarters in Pakistan, including the powerful spy agencies, but the most frightening involve the blasphemy law, he said.
Mir was shot six times in a drive-by shooting in Karachi three years ago. The culprits were later said to have been killed, but Mir pointedly accused Pakistan’s
intelligence agency at the time. “I am not afraid of bullets or bombs,” he said. Even with three of the six bullets still in his body, he has refused to leave Pakistan.
But now he is having second thoughts. Last year, he was charged with blasphemy after writing a column condemning those who would kill in the name of honour following the burning death of a young girl.
“It broke me,” he said. “Here I had done nothing wrong and for four months I faced this blasphemy charge. Then I thought I should leave my country.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have spoken out against the abduction of the bloggers and expressed concerns about journalists’ fears regarding the blasphemy law.
Goraya, the blogger, is still haunted by his three weeks of captivity, where he said cells were packed with men both young and old, many in chains. One of his eardrums is damaged and he no longer has feeling in one hand.
“I was tortured beyond limits, beatings, different equipment used, psychological torture,” he said.