On Saturday, in a first, an Anti-Terrorist Court (ATC) in Pakistan sentenced a man to death for committing ‘blasphemy’ on social media, reported Pakistan’s national daily Dawn. The sentence is the harshest of all handed out so far over cyber-crimes.
Taimoor Raza, a 30-year-old Shia Muslim, had been arrested in April 2016 for allegedly posting derogatory content about Sunni religious figures, Prophet Muhammad and his wives on Facebook and Whatsapp. “The forensic report of his mobile phone showed that he had committed blasphemy in at least 3,000 posts,” case prosecutor Muhammad Shafique Qureshi told the New York Times. Raza’s brother, Waseem Abbas, told the Guardian that his brother had indulged in a sectarian debate with somebody on Facebook, who turned out to be an official from the counter-terrorism department. A case was filed against him on behalf of the state in a Multan police station.
Raza, a resident of Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab, was first charged with inciting sectarian violence which is punishable by two year imprisonment and eventually under a law that focuses specifically on derogatory acts against the Prophet Muhammad and punishes with a death penalty.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Raza is among 15 people who were arrested over blasphemy charges last year. The ATC decision comes amidst an intensifying crackdown in Pakistan on ‘blasphemic content’ on social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. Earlier this year, interior minister Chaudhry Nisar asked Facebook to identify people suspected of committing blasphemy, so that they could be prosecuted by the state. He also threatened to ban social media websites hosting such content, after the Islamabad High Court ordered the government to launch an investigation into online blasphemy.
The blasphemy law remains highly contentious in Pakistan as it frequently empowers vigilante groups and mobs to unleash violent ‘justice’. In April, Mashal Khan, a university student was beaten to death and shot at by a mob after he was accused of committing blasphemy over social media. Subsequent investigation by the authorities showed that the allegations had been baseless and the murder premeditated, which resulted in a wave of protests and calls for amendment of the Blasphemy law all over the country.