Starting on June 10, 2020, University of Sindh chemistry professor and prominent women’s rights activist Arfana Mallah became the target of a campaign of online harassment, including death threats and demands that she be arrested and charged with blasphemy.
The online harassment is in apparent retaliation for comments Mallah made over social media in support of Sajid Soomro, another Pakistani scholar, who was arrested earlier that day on charges of blasphemy and sedition. Authorities arrested Soomro based on accusations of “spreading religious hatred” and having “spoken against Islamic seminaries,” which he denies (see report). Soomro was later released on bail, but continues to face charges. In her online comments, Mallah also reportedly expressed criticism of the use of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, calling it a “black law.”
Shortly after Mallah posted her comments, conservative, Islamist political groups began calling for her arrest and prosecution, also for blasphemy. One political party, Jamiat Ulema-Islam-Fazl, reportedly filed complaint against Mallah with the Federal Investigation. Around the same time, the hashtag #ArrestArfanaMallah295C began trending on Twitter (295C is a references to the article of Pakistan’s penal code regarding blasphemy). Many social media users reportedly called for her to be killed.
In response to the growing threats, international and Pakistani organizations, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the Women’s Action Forum, issued statements calling on state authorities to ensure Mallah’s safety and to ensure that charges are not brought against her. According to the Express Tribune, police in Hyderabad offered to provide protection to Mallah after she filed a request.
Over the years, SAR has reported a growing number of incidents involving prosecutions on charges of blasphemy and accusations of blasphemy, both intended to punish scholars and students whose expression or activity perpetrators consider objectionable. In some incidents, mere accusations or rumors of blasphemy can lead to acts of violence, as in the case of Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University, who was killed by a mob after rumors circulated that he maintained a Facebook page that published blasphemous content (see report).
Scholars at Risk is concerned about repeat, violent threats against a scholar in retaliation for nonviolent expressive activity—conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to ensure the safety of scholars and to investigate threats of attacks against members of higher education communities. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, threats of prosecution or violence intended to punish expressive activity undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.