Jun 12, 2017

Pakistani man sentenced to death for blasphemy on Facebook

BYPankaj Mishra

An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has sentenced a man to death for allegedly committing blasphemy on Facebook, the media reported.
According to a report in the Guardian on Sunday, a court in Bahawalpur in Punjab province of Pakistan handed out the verdict, the harshest yet for such a crime, after finding Taimoor Raza, 30, guilty of insulting the prophet Muhammad.
Raza had indulged in a debate about Islam last year with a man who later turned out to be a counter-terrorism agent. Soon after the sectarian debate, Raza was arrested.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Raza, who belongs to Pakistan’s minority Shia Muslim community, was one among 15 people arrested by the counter-terrorism department last year, accused of blasphemy.
“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,” the report quoted Waseem Abbas, Raza’s brother, as saying.
According to Raza’s defence attorney, he has 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,” said Fida Hussain Rana, the defence counsel.
“Raza was later charged under section 295C of the penal code, related to ‘derogatory acts against prophet Muhammad’,” Rana added.
To battle blasphemy, Pakistani authorities have asked Twitter and Facebook to help identify users sharing blasphemous content. The government has also circulated text messages encouraging citizens to report fellow citizens sharing blasphemous content.
However, human rights defenders have expressed concern and opine that the stringent blasphemy laws are used as a tool to carry out personal vendettas.
“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,” said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in Pakistan.
Also, the sentence was handed down by an anti-terrorism court and not a regular court, sowing the confusion between national security and religion.

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Pankaj Mishra is a writer of FactorDaily.