Lahore, first death sentence for 'blasphemy on Facebook'

The guilty man is 30 years old Taimoor Raza, who had become embroiled in a debate on Islam. The man belongs to the Shiite community. Condemnation confirms attempt to gag dissent.

Lahore (AsiaNews) - An anti-terrorist court in Pakistan has issued the first death sentence for blasphemy on Facebook. Bahawalpur (Punjab) judges sentenced Taimoor Raza, a 30-year-old man, to capital punishment for insulting the prophet Mohammed. Now he can appeal to the High Court of Lahore and following this the Supreme Court. This is the first ruling of this type, which confirms Islamabad government's clampdown on dissent expressed on social media.

Raza was arrested last year after discussing Islamic social networking. Waseem Abbas, his brother, reported that he had "become embroiled in a sectarian debate with a person who only later revealed that he was an official of the Department of Counter-Terrorism, named Muhammad Usman." Abbas added that his family is "poor but educated" and belongs to the Shiite Islamic minority.

The convict is one of the 15 arrested last year in Pakistan, accused of having offended the prophet online. So far no one has been formally condemned for what is considered the "black law" in the country. Indeed, experts consider the decision as "exceptional" if one considers that people accused of blasphemy awaiting trial, such as Christian mother Asia Bibi, have been languishing in Pakistani prisons for years.

The issue is a thorny topic, and only the hypothesis of defaming Islam can provoke violent reactions. This is the case of Mashal Khan, the student lynched to death by colleagues at Mardan University last April, after rumors of blasphemy comments had come to light. Recently an official report ordered by the Supreme Court ruled that charges against the young man were entirely unfounded.

Human rights defenders complain that allegations of blasphemy are used as a justification for personal revenge. That is why more than one criticism has been expressed against the government, when in March, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has asked Facebook and other social media for a "help" to stop blasphemous comments.

The request was interpreted as another attempt to gag dissent, as in the case of the five intellectuals and bloggers kidnapped by intelligence agencies in early 2017 because they dared criticize the radical elements of government. They were first abducted, then charged with blasphemy and then reappeared. As stressed by one of them who dared to break the silence, the result of these political maneuvers was the self-censorship of secular thinkers.