Taimoor Raza, 30, has become the first person to receive a death sentence in a Pakistan anti-terrorism court for his social media posts.
Raza has become a casualty of the Pakistan government’s attempt to crackdown on “blasphemous” content being shared online, CNN reports.
As Amnesty International's Pakistan campaigner Nadia Rahman aptly said, Raza’s conviction sets a “dangerous precedent.”
“No one 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," she asserted.
Raza was accused of sharing “blasphemous pictures and status updates” on Facebook, criticizing Prophet Muhammad and his companions, according to prosecutor Shafique Qureshi. He was detained back in April at a bus stop where he was found allegedly listening to blasphemous material on his phone.
The contents of his phone were later examined by Islamic studies professors and found to be blasphemous, which helped lead to his conviction. He’s now being held in a high treason jail in Sialkot.
The Pakistan government has been adamantly infringing upon civilians’ freedom of speech, particularly when it relates to religion.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority even sent out millions of text messages warning people against sharing so-called blasphemy in online spaces.
“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," the alert said.
In addition to evoking a fear of legal consequences, this message gave the green light for civilians to take on the state’s responsibility of enforcing its own regulation.
"Nothing can be greater than our religion to us,” Pakistan Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan reportedly said in March.
"If social media platforms do not cooperate with us despite all our efforts, then we will take the strictest of measures against such platforms in the country," he added.
Raza’s government-sanctioned punishment is more upsetting considering it comes months after Mashal Khan, a 26-year-old student of journalism, was brutally killed over allegations of blasphemy.
On April 13, a mob of hundreds of students at the Abdul Wali Khan University in the northern city of Mardan marched through the campus chanting religious slogans as they beat and stamped on Khan. As per videos of the devastating incident uploaded online, Khan protested his innocence multiple times but no one listened to him.
Following an investigation into the incident, officials found no evidence whatsoever to suggest Mashal had committed blasphemy.
Unfortunately, Khan’s life wasn’t the first to be claimed over false allegations of blasphemy, which carries a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam, according to the country’s laws. Since these rules loosely define what can actually be considered blasphemy, this leaves room for it to be used as an exploitation tool against just about anyone.
Salman Taseer, the governor of the province of Punjab, was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2011 for criticizing blasphemy laws. A month after Taseer, Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who also denounced the laws, was shot dead in Islamabad. Moreover, religious minorities, including Christians and Hindus are often harassed and killed over baseless accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Raza’s attorney, Fida Hussain Rana, maintains his client’s innocence and said they planned to appeal his conviction.
A spokesman for Facebook issued a statement, proclaiming the social media giant is “deeply saddened and concerned” by the steep sentence. “We do not provide any government with direct access to people’s data,” he added.
It is evident that the government is trying to make an example out of Raza in an effort to discourage others from posting similar content for fear of facing the same dismal fate.