Three more bloggers were accused of blasphemy Friday in an Islamabad anti-terrorism court, while elsewhere in the city hundreds of security forces prevented a radical cleric from holding a protest to condemn another five bloggers, who were earlier charged with insulting Islam — an offense punishable by death in this Islamic country.
Police and government officials said the newest charges were laid against two bloggers from Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi and one from the federal capital. They were arrested earlier this week. One of the three used the alias, Allama Ayaz Nizami, and had over 12,000 followers on line, said a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give details of the cases against the three men.
All three were remanded into custody of Pakistan's anti-terrorism cell for seven days while their online activity is investigated, he said.
Meanwhile Pakistani police in full riot gear sealed off and surrounded Islamabad's Red Mosque, long seen as a refuge for Islamic militants in the Pakistani capital, and the home of a religious leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, preventing his followers from staging their gathering to demand the death penalty for another five bloggers, who were charged earlier with blasphemy.
The Committee to Protect Journalists as well as Amnesty International has decried the use of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy law against the media in Pakistan. Critics say the blasphemy law is being used to silence Pakistan's media because even the allegation can be enough to incite hardliners to kill.
Previously, a provincial governor was shot and killed by his police guard who accused him of blasphemy after he criticized the law and defended a Christian woman sentenced to death under the law.
Meanwhile, the clerics vowed to try again next week. Their demonstration was directed at five bloggers, who were held for nearly three weeks in January.
The bloggers — who went missing but were later returned unhurt to their families — have accused Pakistan's intelligence agency of orchestrating their disappearance because of their criticism of the military and intelligence agencies.
Before their release, hard-liners raised accusations of blasphemy. Abdul Aziz' son-in-law and follower, Salman Shahid, went to court earlier to charge all five bloggers with blasphemy. The five have since fled the country after also receiving death threats.
Alongside the court cases, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government launched a campaign to rid social media of any content considered insulting to Islam — at least any posted by Pakistanis.
The government petitioned Facebook and Twitter to identify Pakistanis worldwide who are found posting material considered offensive to Islam so that Pakistani authorities can prosecute them or pursue their extradition on charges of blasphemy — tantamount to a death sentence.
Earlier, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Khan said a Facebook delegation was expected in Pakistan within weeks.
Meanwhile, the Center for Inquiry, a U.S.-based advocacy group, appealed to Facebook not to consider the censorship demands by Pakistani authorities.
As well as writing a letter to Facebook, Michael De Dora, of the advocacy group, said members of his organization are also taking their concerns about Pakistan's online crackdown to the United Nations and Washington.
"We have taken to the floor of the U.N. Human Rights Council to raise Pakistan's crackdowns on online expression, and communicated our concerns directly with the State Department and Facebook," De Dora said in an email exchange this week. "But it is difficult to tell if our efforts have achieved anything. "
Haroon Baloch, of the Islamabad-based think tank Bytes For All said social media is also widely used by those espousing harsh and exclusive interpretations of Islam. Platforms like Facebook are used to attack Shiite Muslims as well as adherents of minority religions in Pakistan such as Christians and Hindus.
While Pakistan has ordered shut more than 900 web addresses linked to banned religious groups, Baloch said many still maintain social media platforms like Facebook, where they spew hate and even raise funds
Associated Press writers Zarar Khan and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Adil Jawad in Karachi contributed to this report.