Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Pakistan, in a First, Sentences Man to Death Over Blasphemy on Social Media

Source: New York Times (12 June 2017)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An antiterrorism court in Pakistan has sentenced a Shiite man to death for committing blasphemy in posts on social media. The man, Taimoor Raza, 30, was found guilty of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and others on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Mr. Raza was sentenced to death on Saturday by Judge Bashir Ahmed in Punjab Province. It was the first time anyone has been given the death penalty for blasphemy on social media in Pakistan. Mr. Raza can appeal the sentence.

Blasphemy remains a highly contentious issue in Pakistan, where mere allegations of the offense can lead to violence and killings by vigilante mobs. Critics contend that the country’s blasphemy law has been used to settle personal disputes and has worsened interfaith relations.

Counterterrorism officials arrested Mr. Raza at a bus station in Bahawalpur in April 2016. He was accused of having blasphemous content on his mobile phone, and officials said he had been showing the content to people at the bus station when he was arrested. Muhammad Shafique Qureshi, the prosecutor in the case, said that the court had found Mr. Raza guilty of blasphemy and that he had used Facebook and WhatsApp to spread the content.

“The forensic report of his mobile phone showed that he had committed blasphemy in at least 3,000 posts,” Mr. Qureshi said. The police also said that at the time of arrest, 20,000 Iranian rials, or about 60 cents, was recovered from Mr. Raza.

Mr. Qureshi said that during police interrogations, Mr. Raza confessed to being a member of a banned Shiite group, Sipah-e-Muhammad. The organization was engaged in a deadly retaliatory campaign of violence against radical Sunni groups before being outlawed in 2001 along with the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Mr. Raza was initially charged under a section of the penal code that punishes derogatory remarks about other religious personalities for up to two years. Later, during the course of the investigations, he was charged under a law that focuses specifically on derogatory acts against the Prophet Muhammad, which carries a death penalty.

Mr. Raza’s sentence comes amid a widening crackdown against blasphemous content on social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. This year, the country’s interior minister asked Facebook to identify people suspected of committing blasphemy so that they could be prosecuted.

Critics say the government’s move has spread fear and intimidation, leading to vigilante justice and violence.

In April, a university student in northern Pakistan was tortured and shot to death by fellow students. The student, Mashal Khan, who attended Abdul Wali Khan University, was accused of posting blasphemous content on Facebook.

A subsequent investigation concluded that the blasphemy allegations against Mr. Khan were baseless and that his murder was premeditated. The killing prompted nationwide outrage and renewed criticism from human rights groups about the country’s blasphemy law.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Schapelle's home, but 170 Australians are in jail or facing charges overseas for drug crimes

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald (28 May 2017)

Nearly one third of the 545 Australians currently imprisoned or facing charges overseas were convicted or arrested for drug-related crimes, according to the latest figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Many are in countries where conviction on drug charges may attract the death penalty.

DFAT figures on open consular cases show that as of May 24, 102 (or 41 per cent) of the 246 Australians languishing in overseas jails were convicted on drug charges, and 68 (or 23 per cent) of the 299 Australians arrested overseas were arrested on drugs charges. They come as convicted drug smuggler Schapelle Corby returns to Australia, having completed her sentence in an Indonesian jail.

While Corby's is perhaps the most high-profile case of an Australian facing the death penalty, a Fairfax Media analysis shows that since 1980 at least 92 Australians have been charged with crimes that attract the death penalty.

Of these, 33 were handed a death sentence, although 20 of these were later commuted to life sentences. Six have been executed, including Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who faced a firing squad in Indonesia in 2015. One death row inmate in Thailand, Donald Tait, had his conviction overturned in 1988.

The remaining six are on death row or were on death row at last report. Three are in Thailand and Vietnam: Antonio Bagnato, convicted of murder in Thailand in February this year; and Tran Minh Dat and Pham Trung Dung, separately convicted in Vietnam in 2014 on heroin trafficking charges.

A further three on death row in China have had their sentences suspended: Henry Chhin, who was handed a the death penalty suspended for two years in 2005 and whose whereabouts is unknown; Bengali Sherrif, understood to have been given the death penalty suspended for two years in 2015; and Anthony Bannister, who received a suspended death sentence in 2015. All three were convicted for trafficking ice.

Also included in the 92 are three Australians either awaiting trial or a verdict: Peter Gardner and Ibrahim Jalloh are in China and Maria Pinto Exposto is in Malaysia. All three were arrested in separate cases in 2014, on charges of trafficking methamphetamine.

These figures, based on media reports, underestimate the true number of Australians held on charges that could attract the death penalty.

Separate numbers, obtained through freedom of information laws, hint at the sizeable gap between the two data sets. They show that since 2015, Australian Federal Police have assisted in nearly 130 foreign investigations involving more than 400 people, where a successful prosecution could potentially lead to a death sentence.

"That's an extraordinary number," said Stephen Blanks, President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. "If that's correct then publicly-sourced information is only scratching the surface."

Amnesty International's latest report on the death penalty, released last month, highlighted the secrecy surrounding the use of capital punishment in countries such as China, Vietnam and Malaysia.

As many as a dozen Australians – including Sherrif, Bannister, Gardner and Jalloh – are believed to be held in a single city in southern China, Guangzhou, putting estimates of the number of Australians on or facing death row as high as 17.

"China keeps its grotesque use of the death penalty a 'state secret', but our research shows that thousands of people are sentenced to death and executed each year," said Amnesty International Australia's Rose Kulak.

"China executes more people than all other countries in the world put together."

In 2016, at least 1032 people were executed worldwide, excluding in China, according to the latest Amnesty International figures.

DFAT annual reports tracking statistics on Australians arrested overseas for any offence show the rate of arrest rose to its highest level in six years in 2015-16, with 15.2 arrests per 100,000 departures. The largest number of arrests were in the US (262), followed by Thailand (107) and the United Arab Emirates (100).

"DFAT has long provided clear and consistent messaging to Australians that they must respect the laws of the countries in which they work, live or travel," a departmental spokesperson said.

Mr Blanks said the death was not appropriate for any crime, for "many reasons apart from the barbarity".

"There is always the possibility that errors in the judicial process have been made. There is always the possibility that criminals can reform themselves – and the examples of the two Australians executed in Indonesia, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, stand out in that regard," he said.

"In practice, the death penalty operates in a discriminatory way against those least able to defend themselves. Typically, it will be the drug mules that are caught and executed, rather than the organisers of the drug trade."