Dec 222017

The five activists who made international headlines when they went missing earlier this year were cleared of blasphemy charges on Friday, a lawyer said.

The men, who used social media to stand against religious intolerance and at times criticised the army, vanished within days of each other in January, sparking fears of a state crackdown. They included academic Salman Haider, bloggers Asim Saeed, Waqas Goraya and Ahmed Raza Naseer, and Samar Abbas, head of an anti-extremism activist group in Karachi.

Four of them have since been released, with some accusing their captors of torture. No group claimed responsibility for their abduction, and the government and military have denied involvement.

But during their disappearance, a virulent social media campaign to paint them as blasphemers began, triggering a flood of threats.

Observers have said the allegations alone were enough to put the five activists' lives in danger.

On Friday, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) told the Islamabad High Court it could find no evidence against the five men.

“The FIA officials told the court it … seems the five bloggers were not involved in blasphemy,” Tariq Asad, one of the lawyers bringing the charge against the activists, told AFP.

“The judge remarked that no innocent person should be implicated in a false case of blasphemy,” Asad said.

Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui during the hearing remarked that those who have made false accusations regarding someone posting blasphemous content have committed "twice the crime".

He said the trial court will decide if this was a case of false accusation or lack of evidence.

The campaign against the missing men spotlighted how extremist efforts to muzzle liberal voices using state laws have found a powerful new platform online, rights activists say.

The result is often self-censorship, and in the wake of the allegations, a number of liberal commentators shut down their accounts completely.

Ahmad Waqass Goraya, one of the activists who was released and lives in the Netherlands, told AFP the court should now investigate why Pakistan's mainstream media repeated the dangerous claims against him without proof.

He has previously accused the security establishment of abducting and torturing him, and said Friday's ruling “has at least questioned the full impunity that the agencies enjoy”.

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