Peshawar Police file Charges Against Aurat March Organisers as Concerns over Freedom of Expression Rise

The Peshawar police on April 15 booked organisers and participants of the Aurat March event in Islamabad on the orders of a local court on a blasphemy charge. However, the police did not make any immediate arrests.

The FIR, which was registered at the East Cantonment police station, was filed under sections 295-A and C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which deals with ‘malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion and use of derogatory remarks in respect of Holy Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)’.

Led by Ibrar Hussain, a group of five Peshawar-based lawyers had filed a petition with the court of additional district and sessions judge Syed Shaukat Ali Shah in March seeking the registration of a case against Aurat March organisers and participants in Islamabad under Section 22-A of the Code of Criminal Procedure over alleged blasphemy.

The court heard the petition on March 24 and ordered East Cant police station officials to register the FIR against organisers of the Aurat March, an annual protest marking International Women’s Day on March 8 in several cities of Pakistan.

The complainants said that during the Islamabad event, the participants had chanted derogatory remarks against sacred personalities in Islam, and displayed obscene posters on the instructions of organisers hurting the sentiments of Muslims, including theirs. The complainants also filed a contempt petition against the police for delaying the FIR registration, but this was disposed of by the Court following the production of an FIR by the police.

The organisers had already filed a petition with the Peshawar High Court against the order of the additional district judge on multiple grounds, saying that no objectionable incident occurred during their event in Islamabad. They also wondered how an FIR could be registered in Peshawar for an event that occurred in Islamabad.

Later, a committee headed by Senior Superintendent of Police Investigation was formed to investigate all aspects of the case. According to a statement by the Peshawar police, since the event under investigation took place in Islamabad and has no ties to Peshawar, the committee will decide whether it can investigate an incident which took place outside its jurisdiction.

Concerns surrounding freedom of expression

A sessions court in Lahore on April 14 dismissed a petition seeking an order for police to register a case against Tooba Syed and Marvi Sirmed, as well as over 200 unidentified participants of the Aurat March in Islamabad.

Petitioner Khalid Mehmood filed the petition under Section 22-A and 22-B, alleging that the Ravi Road police station house officer refused to lodge a FIR on his application. The petitioner alleged that the participants in the march displayed objectionable slogans, and also committed other criminal offences.

In his decision, Additional District & Sessions Judge Hafiz Rizwan Aziz brought up Article 19 of the Constitution which pertains to freedom of expression. He said that penalizing speech acts which are otherwise constitutionally protected need to be specific and narrowly applied so as to ensure the exercise of constitutional rights unless they specially fall under reasonable restrictions under the law.

He further said that there had been no occurrences of violence or public disorder exercised by the participants in the march, and the protests took place in broad daylight in the presence of police personnel and with the permission of the city administration. He noted that the petitioner had not been present at the event and his information about the alleged crimes came from social media. The police were correct to exercise caution in admitting an FIR against a constitutionally protected gathering raising slogans regarding social issues, he said.

He also cited a ruling by the Islamabad High Court that said nothing in the event was sacrilegious or against Islamic injunctions, and that the occasion of International Women’s Day should be commemorated.

The judge also remarked that the appropriate forum for this complaint would be the Cybercrime Wing of the Federal Investigation Agency under Section 29 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 and Rule 3 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Investigation Rules 2018 instead of the police. Similar to the case in Peshawar, the judge noted that the event occurred in Islamabad but the petition was filed in Lahore, so the event was outside of the city’s jurisdiction.

He also said that the participants of the march, instead of offending sentiments of Muslims, had raised issues of gender-based violence and oppression through their slogans and manifesto. He noted that the identified speech on a poster allegedly displayed at the march did not specifically name any holy person, thus not attracting any defamation provisions.

“The fact that the petitioner took offense from a vague slogan and labeled it as blasphemy reflects his own state of mind and pattern of thought. He has alleged a very serious offense without any iota of supporting material,” he said.

The judge, calling the petition “condemnable”, further said “this trend is dangerous because every speech has a potential to be twisted and given a meaning of one’s own liking or disliking.”

Furthermore, the pictorial evidence submitted by the petitioner displayed slogans and placards that were doctored, as his source of information about the event was social media. The possibility of mis/disinformation in this case was high, the judge noted.

Disinformation surrounding the march

After the march, people began claiming that the French flag was hoisted at the Islamabad event, feeding into the false allegation that the Aurat March is a foreign funded event. Despite clarification from the organisers and grassroots movement Women Democratic Front regarding what the said flag represents, the claim persisted.

A doctored video with fake subtitles also began circulating on social media, alleging that the chants at the Aurat March were defamatory to Islam. Despite clarifications from organisers and participants, it prompted online backlash as it was shared by popular accounts and journalists, endangering the lives of participants and organisers. Although it was later debunked by several journalists, the damage had already been done. Organisers who already face threats and backlash due to mis/disinformation against them, are now having to fight back against cases brought against them in court.

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