Pakistan has handed down the stiffest penalty imaginable for a post to social media — the death penalty — for blasphemy, after a 30-year-old man argued with someone online who turned out to be a counterterrorism agent.
Taimoor Raza allegedly denigrated the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, and companions, in a debate about Islam, according to Bahawalpur public prosecutor Shafiq Qureshi and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and was arrested and charged for the crime as part of an oppressive crackdown on dissent by the administration of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
“An anti terrorism court of Bahawalpur has awarded him the death sentence,” Qureshi told Reuters. “It is the first ever death sentence in a case that involves social media.”
Reuters notes, “Qureshi added that Raza belongs to the minority Shia community and in court he accused of spreading ‘hate speech’ against the Deobandi sect, which adheres to a strict school of Sunni Islam.”
Dozens of others currently languish on Pakistan’s death row for insulting the Prophet — but Raza’s death sentence is unique for the putative crime having occurred on Facebook and for involvement by the Pakistani counterterrorism department.
“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,” asserted Raza’s brother, Waseem Abbas, describing his family as “poor but literate.”
Reports indicate the country’s counterterrorism department maximized possible punishment for Raza by charging him under two separate sections of the law.
“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,” explained Fida Hussain Rana, Raza’s defense attorney, reports the Guardian.
Ultimately, charges were also brought under section 295C of the penal code for “derogatory acts against prophet Muhammad” — making possible the penalty of death for the supposed transgression.
Portentously, material which led to the young man’s conviction had been pulled from Raza’s confiscated phone.
He was among fifteen people charged with blasphemy last year in Pakistan as part of the overall effort to quash dissent in a country where, the Guardian notes, “unfounded allegations of blasphemy can lead to mob vigilante justice.”
That Raza’s sentence had been decided by the counter-terrorism court is a distressing development, noted Human Rights Watch attorney Saroop Ijaz, who told the Guardian,
“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.”
Pakistani culture has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent — particularly in regard to oppositional or confrontational religious views — on social media like Facebook, and in face to face confrontations. Reuters notes,
“Police are currently investigating over 20 students and some faculty members in connection with the killing of Mashal Khan, a student who was beaten to death on April following a dorm debate about religion — an attack that shocked the country.
“Since then, parliament has discussed adding safeguards to the blasphemy laws, a move seen as groundbreaking in Pakistan where political leaders have been assassinated for even discussing changes.”
Anti-military, anti-government, and other sentiments expressed online have forged deep rifts among Pakistanis, particularly as falsely accusing someone can go unpunished.
One unnamed Federal Investigation Agency official told the Guardian phones, laptops, and electronic devices can be seized without warrant, and “We are authorised to detain anyone, just on suspicion.”
Four people received the death penalty for blasphemy last year — but Raza is the first to garner the punishment for a social media post.
He will now have the option of appealing to Pakistan’s High Court, and, if ultimately need be, the Supreme Court.
Image credit: Flickr/mkhmarketing.
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