The prison sentence for blasphemy handed down by a court in Pakistan against four people, including the owner of a major private TV channel and one of its star actresses, will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and the media, Amnesty International said.
The organization also noted serious concerns about the fairness of the trial.
An anti-terrorism court (ATC) sentenced in absentia Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman, owner of Geo TV and its parent Jang Media Group, actress Veena Malik, her husband Asad Bashir and TV host Shaista Wahidi, to 26 years in prison each for airing a “contemptuous” programme.
Geo TV has a tense relationship with Pakistani authorities and was earlier this year temporarily taken off air following the blasphemy allegation.
“This sentence will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Pakistan. It is appalling that someone should be sent to prison for decades over a TV programme,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director.
“This judgment shows how Pakistan’s deeply flawed blasphemy laws have become another tool to silence media.
“There are also serious concerns about the fairness of this trial as the defendants were sentenced in absentia and never had the opportunity to answer the charges in court.”
The ATC also fined the four convicts 1.3 million Pakistani rupees (USD 12,800) each.
The blasphemy charges relate to a programme aired by Geo TV in May this year, when Malik and Bashir re-enacted their wedding ceremony with a Qawaali, devotional music sung to dictate the life and teachings of Prophets, which concerned the marriage of Fatima Zahra, daughter of Prophet Muhammad, with his cousin, Ali.
Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman is based outside Pakistan, while Malik and Bashir have fled the country after receiving death threats when the blasphemy allegations were first levelled against them. Malik told Amnesty International that she fears for her life if she returns to Pakistan.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws violate international human rights law and standards. Amnesty International urges the government to reform the laws as a matter of urgency to provide effective safeguards against their abuse, with a view to their eventual repeal.
“Although the blasphemy laws are disproportionately used against religious minorities, today’s sentencing underlines the fact that no one in Pakistan is safe from being targeted,” said David Griffiths.
“The death threats against Veena Malik and Asad Bashir show how even an accusation of blasphemy could lead to the threat of violence. Authorities should do more to protect those at risk of violence – not fuel the fire by using blasphemy laws to settle political scores.”
Geo TV has been locked in a standoff with Pakistani authorities since its main anchor, Hamid Mir, in April this year accused the spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of being behind an assassination attempt on him.
On 6 June this year, the governmental body Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) suspended Geo TV’s license for 15 days over the blasphemy allegation. PEMRA imposed a similar ban on another private TV station, ARY TV, on 20 October for “maligning” the country’s judiciary.
“The Pakistani authorities must end their attempts to harass critical voices in the media into silence.
“Instead of trying to control media outlets and journalists, the Pakistani authorities should do more to protect them so they can carry out their work freely and without intimidation and harassment,” said David Griffiths.