An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has handed down death sentence to a Shia Muslim activist who allegedly committed blasphemy by posting anti-Wahhabi and Saudi contents on social media.
The court in Punjab province’s Bahawalpur district announced the sentence for Taimoor Raza after holding him guilty of posting derogatory content on social networking website Facebook.
Shafiq Qureshi, public prosecutor in Bahawalpur, confirmed Raza was convicted for allegedly making derogatory remarks against the Deobani sect, which is akin to the Wahhabi tradition and Takfirism practiced in Saudi Arabia.
“An anti terrorism court of Bahawalpur has awarded him the death sentence,” Qureshi said, adding, “It is the first ever death sentence in a case that involves social media.”
“The trial was conducted in Bahawalpur jail in tight security,” Qureshi noted.
Raza, who belongs to the Shia Muslim community, had been accused of spreading of blasphemous contents including “hate speech.”
The 30- year-old activist was detained after playing the material on his phone on a bus stop in the region, where a counter-terrorism officer arrested him and confiscated his phone.
A case was then registered against him on behalf of the State.
Takfirism is largely influenced by Wahhabism, the radical ideology dominating Saudi Arabia and freely preached by Saudi clerics. The extremist ideology has made inroads into Pakistan over the past decades.
The sentence is the harshest among cyber-crime related sentences handed down so far in the country.
The conviction of the Shia Muslim activist follows a high-profile crackdown against blasphemy on social media by the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Some political activists have blamed elements within the government for colluding with some Wahhabi royals from Arab monarchies over the issue.
Misuse of the blasphemy law in Pakistan
The developments come at a time when the Islamabad government is trying to tackle the growing militancy, political instability and extremism in the country.
Critics say Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are largely misused, with hundreds of people languishing in jails under false charges. In most cases, even unproven allegations frequently stir mob violence and bloodshed.
The law has raised concerns among rights activists and some politicians who say it is often exploited by extremists or those who want to settle personal scores.
Supporters of extremist groups have murdered dozens of people over blasphemy allegations over the past few decades.
In April 2017, viral footage showing the lynching of a 23-year-old university student by sympathizers of Wahhabism and Takfiri groups in northwestern Pakistan sparked widespread public outrage.
Journalism student Mashal Khan, who had been accused of blasphemy, was beaten and shot to death at a university in the northwestern city of Mardan.
The brutality of the attack, recorded on a mobile phone camera, shocked the public and led to widespread condemnation and protests in several cities over the past weeks.
In a case of high-profile murder, a member of security forces shot Salman Taseer, the high-profile member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Punjab Governor, 28 times while guarding him in an Islamabad market in early 2011. The guard told the police that he had killed Taseer because the provincial governor sought reforms to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
The same extremist groups are involved in the killing of Shia Muslims as thousands of them have been slain as a result of militancy and hate attacks over the past decade. Shias make up about one third of Pakistan’s population of over 180 million.
Critics blame the Pakistani government and some elements within intelligence services of being unwilling to protect Shia Muslims and moderate Sunnis across the violence-wracked country.
International organizations and rights groups have urged the Pakistani government to take decisive actions against the forces involved in the targeted killings and massacres.