In a week that saw Canada ditch its 90-year-old blasphemy law, an anti-terrorism court in Pakistan sentenced a man to death for committing blasphemy on Facebook.
A court in Bahawalpur yesterday handed down the verdict – the harshest yet for such a crime – after finding Taimoor Raza, 30, above, guilty of insulting the “prophet” Mohammed.
Raza was arrested last year after a debate about Islam on Facebook with a man who turned out to be a counter-terrorism agent. He was one among 15 people arrested by the counter-terrorism department last year for alleged blasphemy, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The verdict is part of a wider crackdown on perceived dissent on social media in a country where unfounded allegations of blasphemy can lead to mob vigilante justice.
Raza’s brother, Waseem Abbas, said the family was “poor but literate”, and belonged to Pakistan’s minority Shia Muslim community.
My brother indulged in a sectarian debate on Facebook with a person, who we later come to know, was a [counter-terrorism department] official with the name of Muhammad Usman.
Raza’s defence attorney, Fida Hussain Rana, said his client had been charged with two unrelated sections of the law to ensure the maximum penalty.
Initially, it was a case of insulting remarks on sectarian grounds and the offence was 298A, which punishes for derogatory remarks about other religious personalities for up to two years.
Raza was later charged under section 295C of the penal code. This charge relates to:
Derogatory acts against prophet Mohammed.
Social media represents a new battleground for the Pakistani fight against blasphemy. Authorities have asked Twitter and Facebook to help identify users sharing blasphemous material, and have distributed text messages encouraging Pakistanis to report fellow citizens.
Human rights defenders have expressed concern that the country’s blasphemy laws, and the authorities’ zealous application of them, provide a tool for people to carry out personal vendettas, particularly because nobody is ever punished for making false accusations.
Said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in Pakistan.
The casual manner in which death sentences are handed in blasphemy cases coupled with the lack of orientation of Pakistani courts with technology makes this a very dangerous situation.
Such sentences will embolden those who want to wrongly frame people. The confusion between national security and religion is very alarming.
Recently, the Federal Investigation Agency detained dozens of social media users for posting “anti-military” content, including journalists and supporters of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party, one of whom shared a satirical photo of prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
They were detained under the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crime Act, passed last year, which has been criticised for curbing human rights and giving overreaching powers to law enforcement agencies.
An FIA official told the Guardian that his agency had orders from the interior ministry to interrogate, and seize laptops and phones, without warrant.
We are authorised to detain anyone, just on suspicion.
Quratulain Zaman, human rights defender with Bytes for All Pakistan, said the harassment of social media users was unprecedented, and a sign of social media’s growing ability to shape public opinion, including against the military.
In Pakistan, blasphemy is so contentious that the mere mention of unfounded allegations can ignite mass uproar. In April, a mob at a north-western university took 23-year-old Mashal Khan from his dormitory and lynched him, angered by accusations that Khan had offended Islam.
Last week, a joint investigation concluded that the baseless allegations had been a conspiracy by some students and university staff.