Pakistan, in a First, Sentences Man to Death Over Blasphemy on Social Media


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Demonstrators in April protested the killing of Mashal Khan, a student in Pakistan who was accused of posting blasphemous content on social media. This weekend, the country sentenced a man to death over making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and others on Facebook and WhatsApp.

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — An antiterrorism court in Pakistan has sentenced a Shiite man to death for committing blasphemy in posts on social media. The man, Taimoor Raza, 30, was found guilty of making derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, his wives and others on Facebook and WhatsApp.

Mr. Raza was sentenced to death on Saturday by Judge Bashir Ahmed in Punjab Province. It was the first time anyone has been given the death penalty for blasphemy on social media in Pakistan. Mr. Raza can appeal the sentence.

Blasphemy remains a highly contentious issue in Pakistan, where mere allegations of the offense can lead to violence and killings by vigilante mobs. Critics contend that the country’s blasphemy law has been used to settle personal disputes and has worsened interfaith relations.

Counterterrorism officials arrested Mr. Raza at a bus station in Bahawalpur in April 2016. He was accused of having blasphemous content on his mobile phone, and officials said he had been showing the content to people at the bus station when he was arrested. Muhammad Shafique Qureshi, the prosecutor in the case, said that the court had found Mr. Raza guilty of blasphemy and that he had used Facebook and WhatsApp to spread the content.

“The forensic report of his mobile phone showed that he had committed blasphemy in at least 3,000 posts,” Mr. Qureshi said. The police also said that at the time of arrest, 20,000 Iranian rials, or about 60 cents, was recovered from Mr. Raza.

Mr. Qureshi said that during police interrogations, Mr. Raza confessed to being a member of a banned Shiite group, Sipah-e-Muhammad. The organization was engaged in a deadly retaliatory campaign of violence against radical Sunni groups before being outlawed in 2001 along with the Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

Mr. Raza was initially charged under a section of the penal code that punishes derogatory remarks about other religious personalities for up to two years. Later, during the course of the investigations, he was charged under a law that focuses specifically on derogatory acts against the Prophet Muhammad, which carries a death penalty.

Mr. Raza’s sentence comes amid a widening crackdown against blasphemous content on social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. This year, the country’s interior minister asked Facebook to identify people suspected of committing blasphemy so that they could be prosecuted.

Critics say the government’s move has spread fear and intimidation, leading to vigilante justice and violence.

In April, a university student in northern Pakistan was tortured and shot to death by fellow students. The student, Mashal Khan, who attended Abdul Wali Khan University, was accused of posting blasphemous content on Facebook.

A subsequent investigation concluded that the blasphemy allegations against Mr. Khan were baseless and that his murder was premeditated. The killing prompted nationwide outrage and renewed criticism from human rights groups about the country’s blasphemy law.

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