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Pakistan sentences Shia man to death for alleged blasphemy on Facebook

An anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Pakistan has sentenced a 30-year-old man, belonging to the minority Shia community, to death for allegedly posting blasphemous content on Facebook.

The sentence is the harshest among cyber-crime related sentences handed down so far in Pakistan. This is perhaps the first ever case in the world when a social media user was sentenced to death by the court of law.

ATC Judge Shabbir Ahmed announced the sentence for 30-year-old Taimoor Raza on 10 June in Bahawapur jail of eastern Punjab province. The trial was conducted amid tight security.

Raza hails from Okara, situated at a distance of 200 km from Lahore. He was convicted for allegedly making derogatory remarks against about Sunni religious figures, Prophet Mohammad, his wives and companions.

According to reports, Raza was arrested in April last year after a debate about Islam on Facebook with a man who turned out to be a counter-terrorism agent. He was arrested by a counter-terrorism officer following a complaint that he was showing onlookers “objectionable material” on his cell phone at a bus terminal in Bahawapur.

It is rare for a counter-terrorism court to hear a blasphemy case. But the sections under which Raza has been charged included counter-terrorism offences linked to hate speech. Raza was charged under section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code (use of derogatory remarks, etc in respect of the Holy Prophet) and Section 9 and 11w of the Anti-Terrorism Act (which deal with whipping up sectarian hatred).

“Raza had been charged with two unrelated sections of the law to ensure the maximum penalty,” Raza’s defence attorney Fida Hussain Rana was quoted as saying.

It could be noted that Pakistan, which is a predominantly a Sunni Muslim country, remains indifferent to the Shias and other religious minorities.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan. Under Pakistan’s blasphemy law, anyone accused of “insulting” Islam can be sentenced to death. Dozens are sitting on death row in the country for alleged blasphemy.

According to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country last year had arrested 15 people – 10 Muslims and five non-Muslims – on blasphemy charges. Several other violent incidents linked to alleged blasphemy have alarmed human rights groups in the recent times.

Figures obtained from independent records suggest that there have been at least 67 murders in Pakistan over unproven allegations since 1990.

In April this year, a stick-wielding mob in Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan beat up a student named Mashal Khan to death following a dorm debate about religion.

In January 2011, a provincial governor was shot dead by his police guard who accused him of blasphemy after he criticised the law and defended a Christian woman sentenced to death.

Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, was convicted in 2010 for alleged blasphemy. Bibi is still in solitary confinement.

According to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, four people were sentenced to death for blasphemy last year.

Pakistan, last year, had passed a controversial cyber crime bill called Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 that proposed strict punishment for cyber crime offences. Recently, the Federal Investigation Agency of Pakistan detained dozens of social media users under the act.

Pakistani Authorities have asked Twitter and Facebook to help identify users sharing “blasphemous content”. Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar had threatened to block these social-networking websites in the country if they failed to cooperate.

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