The Pakistan Penal Code prohibits blasphemy against any recognized religion, providing penalties ranging from a fine to death. Since 1990, 62 people have been murdered as a result of blasphemy allegations. While other countries are rejecting the archaic blasphemy law, Pakistan toughens penalties for blasphemy making Raza the first person sentenced to death for such a ‘crime’ on social media.
Anti-Terrorism Court in Pakistan sentenced 30-year-old Taimoor Raza to death for offending religious sensibilities, marking the first time the government will kill someone for blasphemy. Raza was arrested last year after a debate about Islam on Facebook with a man who turned out to be a counter-terrorism agent. Authorities from Pakistan have asked Twitter and Facebook to help identify users sharing blasphemous material and it’s a new battleground in their fight against blasphemy.
Human rights defenders have expressed concern that the country’s blasphemy laws provide a tool for people to carry out personal vendettas, particularly because nobody is ever punished for making false accusations. “Such sentences will embolden those who want to wrongly frame people,” Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer with Human Rights Watchin Pakistan said, noting with concern that Saturday’s sentence was handed down by an anti-terrorism court, not a regular court. “The confusion between national security and religion is very alarming,” he added.
Raza’s brother, Waseem Abbas, said the family was “poor but literate,” and belonged to Pakistan’s minority Shia Muslim community. “My brother indulged in a sectarian debate on Facebook with a person, who we later come to know, was a [counter-terrorism department] official with the name of Muhammad Usman,” he said.
According to Raza’s defense attorney, Raza’s client had been charged with two unrelated sections of the law to ensure the maximum penalty. Raza was initially charged under section 298A, which punishes for derogatory remarks about other religious personalities for up to two years. Later he was charged under section 295C of the penal code, related to “derogatory acts against Prophet Muhammad.”
Besides Raza, several others are already on death row for alleged blasphemy in public. Among them is Asia Bibi, a Christian woman convicted in 2010 after a row with two Muslim women in a village in Punjab. Four people were sentenced to death for blasphemy last year, according to the HRCP. In the age of freedom of speech and belief it is unacceptable for any government to punish people who say what they really think.
Photo Credits: Orissa Post