Five bizarre blasphemy cases

An 11-year-old girl with Down’s Syndrome was last week arrested in Pakistan, after an angry mob demanded that the girl be punished for allegedly desecrating the Qur’an — the Islamic holy book. The young girl is a resident of a Christian neighbourhood on the outskirts of Islamabad, from where over 600 citizens have now fled after calls for her arrest were accompanied by threats to burn Christian homes in the area. This isn’t the first blasphemy case we’ve seen come out of Pakistan — earlier this year, charges were brought against Facebook for hosting “blasphemous content”. In September 2011, a young Christian school girl was expelled for misspelling a word on an exam question tied to a poem revering the  Prophet Muhammad.

Religious sensitivities have mostly been responsible for silence from Pakistani politicians on the controversial laws — slammed internationally for their usage against religious minorities in the country. Politicians speaking out against the laws have faced hardship, and even in some cases — death. In January this year, governor of the state of Punjab Salman Taseer was slain after criticising the law, and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered last year after speaking out against the country’s blasphemy laws, under which 1,000 cases have been lodged against individuals for allegedly desecrating the Qur’an since 1998.

Of course, Pakistan is not alone in upholding vague blasphemy laws that make it easy to clamp down on free speech in the name of protecting religion. Here are some ridiculous blasphemy cases from around the world this year.


Three members of feminist punk group Pussy Riot were this month sentenced to two years in prison after being charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” for a 40-second performance staged in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Church. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alekhina and Ekaterina Samutsevic were arrested in March for their “punk prayer” — which invoked the Virgin Mary to cast out Russian President Vladimir Putin. The case has garnered international outrage, as local activists believe that the charges brought against the women are actually politically motivated.


In post-revolution Tunisia, the General Director of a TV station that aired a film depicting God as an old bearded man, was prosecuted and fined for “violating sacred values”. Nabil Karoui’s station, Nessma TV, aired the animated film Persepolis, based on Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel by the same name.

And concerns about freedom of expression in Tunisia only seem to grow, as its ruling Islamist party moved to outlaw blasphemy in a bill filed on 1 August. If passed, “cursing, insulting, mocking, undermining, and desecrating” religious symbols from the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) could lead to two years in jail, as well as a hefty fine of 2000 TND (£794).  While the ruling Ennadha Party claims to want to protect free speech, blasphemy is treated differently — in the name of protecting an “Arab Muslim identity”.


Indian skeptic Sanal Edamaruku, has built a career out of challenging religious superstitions and mystics. Edamaruku now faces blasphemy charges for “deliberately hurting religious feelings” after pointing out that the “miracle” of “holy water” dripping from a crucifix in a Mumbai-based Catholic church was actually the result of a leaky pipe rather than divine intervention. He potentially faces jail time, and is currently remaining outside of the country in order to avoid arrest.


Earlier this year, beloved Egyptian comic Adel Imam was sentenced to three months in jail for “insulting Islam” in films he made in the early 1990s. A Cairo court eventually dropped the charges, which were brought against the comic by Islamist lawyer Asran Mansour, for allegedly ridiculing political and religious figures. Also this year, Islamists accused Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris of “blasphemy and insulting Islam” after he posted a picture of a veiled Minnie and bearded Mickey Mouse on the social networking site Twitter. The charges were eventually dismissed. Both of these case sparked outrage and fears that a clampdown on free expression in the country might take place, as the newly elected President Mohamed Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Well-known Polish pop star Doda was fined at the start of the year for comments she made in a 2009 interview, where she said that she had difficulty believing in the Bible, as it “was written by someone drunk on wine and smoking some herbs”. Doda, who launched her career with a solo album entitled Diamond Bitch, was fined 5,000 zlotys by Polish authorities for her comments — deemed to be offensive in the deeply Roman Catholic country.

Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index on Censorship. She tweets from @missyasin

TV boss ordered to pay fine over Persepolis broadcast

The Court of First Instance of Tunis today ordered Nabil Karoui, boss of Nessma TV, to pay a fine of 2,400 Tunisian Dinars (961 GBP) over the broadcast of the French-Iranian animated film Persepolis.

Karoui was found guilty of “disturbing public order”, and of “attacking proper morals” but the court dismissed the charge of “attacking religious symbols”. Nadia Jalel, whose association dubbed the film into Tunisian dialect, and Hedi Boughnim, Nessma Program Director were also convicted and fined.


Shot from French-Iranian film, Persepolis

The film aired few weeks before elections in October 2011 which bought the moderate Islamist Ennahda party to power. It angered hardline Islamists and sparked violent protests. Karoui’s house and Nessma TV headquarters were attacked by ultra-conservative protesters who considered the film “blasphemous” because it contains a scene where God is depicted. Seculars Tunisians viewed the trial as a test of freedom of speech.

The verdict was issued as World Press Freedom Day was celebrated in Tunis. Naceur Aouini, Karoui’s defence lawyer described the verdict as “political par excellence”, saying “the Tunisian judiciary is not independent”. He told AFP: “This verdict is an affront to the freedom of the press. We hoped for a straightforward acquittal on this World Press Freedom Day.”

Aouini told Express FM that the defence will appeal, and will continue fighting “for the Tunisians’ right to freedom of speech, and to an independent judiciary”.

Faouzi Ben Mrad, another lawyer defending Karoui, described the verdict was “alarming”.

“I feel ashamed because we have provided the court with all documents, and legal texts that prove that Karoui, and the two other defendants did not commit any crime that requires punishment…it’s a sad day”.

Verdict due in Persepolis trial – key test of free expression in Tunisia

A Tunis court is expected to issue a verdict in the prosecution of a television station broadcaster which aired the award-winning French-Iranian film Persepolis tomorrow (3 May). If convicted of “violating sacred values”, Nabil Karoui, Nessma TV’s owner and two of his employees face up to to three years in jail which ironically is also UNESCO World Press Freedom Day.

The 2007 animated film, which contains a scene where God is depicted as a white-bearded man, was broadcast  a few weeks before the October 2011 constituent assembly election. Its broadcast sparked violent protests: Nessma TV’s headquarters and Karoui’s home were attacked by ultra-conservative protesters who consider pictorial representations of God as haram (forbidden).

The court hearings were marked by tension and violence. In January, 23 journalists and activists standing in solidarity with Nessma TV were assaulted. On 19 April, and due to high tensions outside the courtroom where pro- and anti-Nessma protesters gathered, the court decided to delay issuing a verdict to 3 May.

“I hope that the court will shut this file for good, put law into practice, and put an end to this waste of time, and effort,” Sofiene Ben H’mida, a journalist for Nessma, told Index. Ben H’mida was himself assaulted by protesters showing support to the Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh on 11 January.

“The Nessma team is confident and no matter what the verdict will be, we have enough courage to continue our job”, he added.

Tunisia: Journalist accused of filming Nessma TV trial faces fine

On Sunday, 13 February, the Tunis court of first instance ordered Cheker Besbes, a journalist for the private radio station Mosaique FM, to pay a fine of 200 dinars (around GBP £82), for allegedly videotaping a hearing in trial of Nessma TV employees. The TV station’s general director and two staff are accused of ““violating sacred values”  by showing French-Irianian film Persepolis, which includes images of Allah.

Besbes admits he had a camera with him in the courtroom, but denies videotaping the hearing. “Besides,” he said in an interview with the blog collective, “there is no law that prohibits entering the courtroom with a camera. Using it is indeed illegal, but in my case it did not happen.”

Besbes insists that the court punished him without even checking his camera’s footage. “They have condemned me for filming inside the courtroom, without taking the legal procedures to find out if I did so or not”, he said.

Justice Minister Nourreddine Bhiri’s decision to ban filming of the trial came as a surprise to journalists, who had been allowed to film previous trials, among them the trial in absentia of former President Zeine El Abidin Ben Ali and the first session in the hearing of the Nessma TV case.

Nabil Karoui, general director of Nessma TV, a privately-owned television station, and two of his employees are accused of “violating sacred values” and “disturbing the public order” for broadcasting the French-Iranian film Persepolis.

Besbes and his lawyers referred the case to the Court of Cassation, Tunisia’s highest court.

“The problem is not whether the fine of 200 dinars represents a considerable proportion of my salary,” said Besbes. “We are against the sentence and I have decided along with my lawyers to take the case to the cassation court. We were expecting a non-suit, because I’m innocent,” he told Nawaat.