Facebook blasphemy: Pakistani man sentenced to death for insulting Prophet Muhammad

A 30-year-old Pakistani man has been sentenced to death by a counterterrorism court, following the conviction on charges he insulted the Prophet Muhammed and his wives on Facebook, officials said Sunday.

Taimoor Raza, who belongs to the minority Shia sect in the Sunni-dominant country, was arrested last year following an online argument about Islam with someone who turned out to be a counterterrorism agent.

Raza’s defense lawyer, Fida Hussain Rana, stated that his client was initially charged only for insulting remarks about other religious personalities, which carries a maximum two-year punishment, but charges of “derogatory acts against Prophet Muhammad” were later added to ensure the ultimate penalty during the trial in Bahawalpur, 300 miles south of Lahore.

It marks the country’s first ever death sentence in a case pertaining to social media, but as Raza’s trial was handled by the counterterrorism court, he is eligible to appeal the ruling in the High Court and then the Supreme Court.

However, human rights activists have expressed deep concerns that Raza’s case is the beginning of a wider social media crackdown that will continue, particularly because nobody is ever held accountable for making fictitious accusations.

Raza’s verdict comes at a time when officials are increasingly pounding down on blasphemy claims across the country. At least 15 Pakistanis are said to have been arrested by the counterterrorism department under the umbrella of blasphemy, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Four other people were sentenced to death for the crime in 2016 alone.

Scores of others in Pakistan remain on death row for alleged blasphemy, including Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who remains in solitary confinement after being convicted in 2010 following a debate with two Muslim women in a Punjab village.

The notion of blasphemy is especially sensitive in Pakistan, often igniting violence and outcry even before cases have had the chance to be heard in the house of law. In April, 23-year-old student Mashal Khan was accosted by an angry mob accusing him of such a felony at the Abdul Wali Khan University in northwest Mardan. He was then stripped, beaten, shot and tossed to his death from the second floor.

Weeks later, a crowd attacked a mentally ill man vowing to be the prophet at a local mosque, and in May a 10-year-old boy was killed and five others injured after an upset clan launched an assault on a police station in a quest to lynch a Hindu man accused of posting a blasphemous image on social media.