Two Notable South Asian Atheists Face Blasphemy Charges in Their Countries

Two activists are facing separate charges of blasphemy for calling into question harmful religious traditions and superstitious thinking.

Babu Gogineni, a former director of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), is kind of like India’s James Randi. He’s known for appearing in the media and debunking charlatans. Last year, in a clip that went viral, he debunked two “pranic healers” who said energy could heal your body and that they could cure your problems over the phone.

So what did he do that was so awful?

Petitioner Veera Narayana Chowdary said he was watching Gogineni’s speeches online… and that’s literally it.

He filed this unbelievable litany of charges against Gogineni that include obscenity, insulting religion, and “public mischief.”

The case was registered under Sections 121 (Waging, or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war, against the Government of India), 124a (Sedition), 153a (Promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion), 153b (Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 292 (Obscenity), 293 (Sale, etc, of obscene objects to young person), 295-A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 406 (Criminal breach of trust), 420 (Cheating), 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) and 505 (Statements conducing public mischief) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

Babu was also booked under sections of the UIDAI Act for allegedly collecting and storing Aadhar details.

Chowdary made these claims during a news program:

Speaking on the panel, Veera claimed that he had submitted video footage of Babu’s speeches criticising Hindu ‘traditions’ in speeches made abroad.

“Freedom of speech is there, but it should not hurt the sentiments of believers,” he claimed.

Freedom of speech doesn’t count when you have to include an exemption for speech that might offend people. The whole reason nations need free speech laws is to protect speakers from people who might not like what they have to say.

Gogineni hasn’t been arrested yet, and that’s for a rather interesting reason. For the past month, he’s been locked up in a house filming the local version of Big Brother called Bigg Boss Telugu 2. (Telugu is the local language.) That means these charges are coming against him and he can’t even defend himself. Even worse, he likely has no idea what’s happening since the show requires contestants to be isolated from the rest of the world.

For now, his lawyer has requested the courts wait two months before officially charging him so he can finish out the show.

The other person in trouble right now is Pakistani activist Gulalai Ismail, whose work with a group called Aware Girls has been all about promoting women’s rights and peace. (The horror.)

According to the IHEU, on which Ismail serves as a current board member,

… Gulalai and Aware Girls have faced a campaign of defamation accusing Gulalai of “blasphemy” and the organization of undertaking “immoral” activities.

On 8 June, the office of Aware Girls received notice from the Social Welfare Directorate suspending its governing board and demanding that the organization hand over all assets and records to the Directorate. Those who had been calling for the shutdown of Aware Girls were already celebrating by the time the organization received the notice. There had been no arrest or formal statement of allegations against the organization or its board.

In a statement the organization said: “Aware Girls’ believe this as an attack on its constitutional right to Freedom of Association and the right to Free and Fair Trial. Groups like Aware Girls are rare, and thus extra valuable as an example of democracy and the human rights of all citizens. Aware Girls’ has been making Pakistan and the world a better place for young people especially young women.”

Details on what she did “wrong” are hard to come by… probably because she did nothing wrong. Some people just can’t handle anyone working to advance women’s rights in a country where women are oppressed.

IHEU President Andrew Copson called both attacks “spurious,” “malicious,” and “dangerous.” By painting a target on their backs — even baseless ones — both activists have become potential targets of religious extremists.

“As with proponents of humanism anywhere, Gulalai and Babu want to advocate for liberal values, to educate the public, and to uphold equality and human rights. We petition the authorities in both countries to reject these malicious accusations and uphold the rights of Gulalai and Babu to do their work, which is not only legitimate but is in the interests of the public at large.”

Keep in mind that we’ve seen other activists murdered in Bangladesh for being outspoken skeptics. These recent charges are obviously frivolous to our ears, but the fact that authorities are even considering taking action is appalling. It’s all the more reason for these South Asian countries to abolish blasphemy laws for good, along with anything else hampering free speech even if it’s offensive to some.

Urging people to think critically and respect human rights should not lead to a fine, or jail time, or a potential death sentence.

(Thanks to Jyothsna for the link)

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