05/19/2010, 00.00
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Facebook blocked by blasphemy regulations

A judge blocks the social networking website until 31 May because some users organised a competition for Muhammad caricatures. Under Pakistani law, blasphemy can include the death penalty. Account creators say extremists cannot “take away our freedom of speech”.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Pakistan’s blasphemy regulations, which punish anyone who desecrates the Qur’an or insults the Prophet Muhammad, has a new target: Facebook. Used traditionally against Christians, Hindus and Ahmadi, these rules are now being used against the social networking website. The High Court in Lahore in fact ordered the government to block temporarily Facebook after a group of lawyers filed a petition because of drawing competition involving the Prophet Muhammad.

The case could have an impact worldwide like the cartoon affair of September 2005 when Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting Muhammad, especially since the court ordered the Foreign Ministry to find out where the competition was being held.

After the Islamic Lawyers’ Movement filed a petition with the court, describing the Facebook account as blasphemous because it had Muhammad caricatures, Justice Ejaz Ahmed Chaudhry ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) to block Facebook until 31 May.

The caricatures are part of a competition that is open until 20 May to all users.

Promoters of the initiative said their action is in response to the protests organised by Muslims against the creators of popular American animated sitcom “South Park” which unfavourably depicts the Prophet Muhammad.

“We are not trying to slander the average Muslim,” the Facebook account creators wrote. “We simply want to show the extremists that threaten to harm people because of their Mohammad depictions that we're not afraid of them. That they can't take away our right to freedom of speech by trying to scare us into silence.”

In Pakistan, which has some 45 million Facebook users, a number of pages have already been blocked. However, on this occasion, the court had to block everything because the offending pages could not be filtered out.

The lawyers stress that Pakistan is a Muslim nation and its laws ban un-Islamic or blasphemous activities. “The competition has hurt the sentiments of the Muslims,” one of the lawyers stressed.

The judge who ruled against Facebook also called on the Foreign Ministry to raise the issue at international level.

In the meantime, thousands of users have joined a campaign to boycott the website for allowing the publications of content that are deemed contrary to Islamic morality.

In Pakistan, the controversy has a large impact, as the Facebook affair became front-page news in the country’s most important media.

The Daily Times reported for example that the women’s wing of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and students from various educational institutions organised various demonstrations.

In reality, Pakistan’s blasphemy regulations, which are now used against a social networking website, are the country’s worst tool of religious repression.

According to National Commission on Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church, 964 people have been charged between 1986 and August 2009 for desecrating the Qur’an or defaming the Prophet Muhammad. They include 479 Muslims, 119 Christians, 349 Ahmadi, 14 Hindus and 10 members of other religions.

Specifically, these rules are Articles B and C of Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which were adopted in 1986 under then military dictator Zia-ul-Haq.

According to them, anyone who offends Islam and its prophet can be punished; in the case of an insult to Muhammad, that can entail the death penalty.  

Ever since their introduction, these regulations have been used as a tool of discrimination and violence. (DS)

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