A man in Pakistan was sentenced to death after being convicted of “blasphemy on the social media platform Facebook," marking one in several cases in which the Muslim nation is using social media to crack down on dissent and statements critical of Islam.
In an ironically dubbed anti-terrorism court in the city of Bahawalpur, a man named Taimoor Raza, 30, was found guilty of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, and others, according to prosecutors. Despite the specificity of his comments being unclear, Mr. Raza was given a literal death sentence for his alleged statements.
Raja's sentence is reportedly the first time someone's been sentenced to death for a Facebook post in Pakistan. The country’s anti-blasphemy law allows for due process and a trial, but human rights advocates have expressed concerns that laws such as these are being used by authorities to carry out personal vendettas.
Taimoor Raza was arrested on the charges of blasphemy around a year after he allegedly entered into a debate on Facebook about Islam. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Raza was one of 15 arrested last year by Pakistan’s counter-terrorism department.
In a statement, Raza's brother described his family as “poor but literate,” and belonging to the nation's Shia minority. When asked about the circumstances of his brother’s arrest, he said, “My brother indulged in a sectarian debate in Facebook with a person, who we later come to know, was a [counter-terrorism department] official with the name of Muhammad Usman.”
The counter-terrorism department has become a very important component in the rising religious tension in Pakistan. The Muslim majority country uses this organization to combat blasphemy, launching investigations on social media to find users who've made derogatory statements against the faith or those in power. This narrative even finds a place amongst Pakistan’s higher level government, with Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan threatening to block all social media websites with “blasphemous content” late last month. The government even sent in requests to Twitter and Facebook to report posts to authorities.
The anti-blasphemy movement also has a staple within the general public and accusations against people can even lead to mob violence like the case of journalism student Mashal Khan, 23, who was fatally beaten after rumors had spread that he insulted the Islamic faith. It was later found that university officials at Mr. Khan’s school had egged on the attack, encouraging students after he questioned some of their policies. The mob chanted “God is great” while beating Khan to death in his dorm.
“The casual manner in which death sentences are handed in blasphemy cases coupled with the lack of orientation of Pakistan courts with technology makes this a very dangerous situation," said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer from Human Rights Watch. He also noted “such sentences will embolden those who want to wrongly frame people,” adding, “The confusion between national security and religion is very alarming."
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