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Blasphemy sentence

June 23, 2011

IN a case that appears to be the first of its kind, a man has been sentenced to death for committing blasphemy via cellphone text messaging. On Tuesday, an additional district and sessions judge in Talagang handed down the sentence and imposed a fine on a man in a blasphemy case filed with the Talagang city police station in February last year. The circumstances of the case are murky to say the least. The complainant, a resident of Talagang, told the police that he had been receiving blasphemous text messages from an unfamiliar number. The police set up a special inquiry committee which used cellphone data to trace the apparent owner of the number, a resident of Larkana. It is worth questioning how credible the investigation was, particularly given that we live in an era where text messages are forwarded into endless circulation at unprecedented speed. All sorts of material is passed from person to person, sometimes without even being fully understood, and the authorship of messages is virtually impossible to establish.

It must also be pointed out that the police and court system showed uncharacteristic zeal in pursuing the case. Talagang in Punjab and Larkana in Sindh are hundreds of miles apart; in order to arrest the man, the police had to get special permission from the home department to conduct a raid in another province. The sentence, too, was handed down in far less time — a little more than a year — than is usual for Pakistan's ordinarily ponderous court system. Most cases drag on for years and the backlog that exists in the lower courts in particular is well known. Meanwhile, police investigations are criticised for moving at a snail's pace. If the justice system showed similar interest in pursuing other types of cases, the people's cause would be better served.