On Saturday, 30-year-old Taimoor Raza was sentenced to death in Pakistan for comments made in a Facebook post. The Pakistani anti-terrorism court based the decision on Raza’s use of “derogatory remarks…in respect of the Holy Prophet” in the social media post. The move is part of the nation’s attempt to crackdown on certain forms of speech online.
As reported by CNN, Raza’s sentence marks the first time a person will receive the death penalty for remarks made on social media. Activists consider the decision worrying. In a statement, Nadia Rahman, a campaigner for Amnesty International in Pakistan, said the conviction sets a “dangerous precedent” regarding how similar cases are handled.
“No one should be hauled before an anti-terrorism court or any other court solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief online,” said Rahman.
Raza’s arrest took place on April 5 after he was heard listening to blasphemous content on his smartphone. Additional images on the device were also deemed blasphemous, as well as content on his Facebook page.
Fida Hussain Rana, Raza’s lawyer, insists his client is innocent and was set up by two other individuals. In a statement, Rana said the other parties “instigated Taimoor on Facebook Chat to get him to say things against the Prophet Muhammad.” He goes on to assert Raza himself did not say anything blasphemous.
The Pakistani government has taken major steps to crackdown on the use of social media in 2017. During a discussion in March, Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan, the Pakistan Interior Minister, said, “nothing can be greater than our religion to us” and asserting the need to stop blasphemy online.
In May, citizens were warned against sharing blasphemous content online via a text message sent by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. The message was sent to millions of people, reading, “The uploading and sharing of blasphemous content on the internet is a punishable action under the law. Such content should be reported for legal action.”
Though laws against blasphemy have been on the books in Pakistan for some time, they were only recently extended to social media. Under the law, speech that insults the Prophet Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence.
While no one has been executed for online activities, violent public responses have occurred. In April, a male university student was beaten to death by other students after accusations of blasphemy circulated through campus. 57 people were arrested in connection with the attack. The man was acquitted of all blasphemy charges two months after his death.