Pakistan's interior ministry circulated this message to millions on May 10, 2017. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

The country’s first capital punishment sentence for the crime of “cyber blasphemy” was handed down by Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court on Saturday when it found a 30 year-old man in Bahawalpur, 600 kilometers south of Islamabad, guilty of sharing sacrilegious content on his Facebook page.

Taimoor Raza, 30, was arrested by the counter-terrorism department (CTD) last year after allegedly making arguments against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in conversation with a CTD staffer whose identity was unknown to him. A case was registered against him under Section 295-C (“use of derogatory remarks, etc, in respect of the Prophet”) and Sections 9 and 11w of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

The CTD is primarily tasked with countering terrorism and militancy in collaboration with other agencies. Instead, it has become a tool in the hands of powerful clergy who use it at random to bully their opponents.

In December last year, the same department stormed the central offices of the Ahmadiyya Muslim sect in Rabwah, Punjab, claiming that the community had published a monthly bulletin despite being banned from doing so. They made arrests, took away office equipment and personal belongings, and manhandled the staff.

The death sentence given to Raza is the most punitive step taken since the ministry of the interior began its crackdown on social media activists for posting “derogatory and blasphemous remarks” earlier this year. Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency has booked a number of people to date under relevant laws.

Alarmingly, the state has used all of its organs in enforcing the crackdown. The interior ministry, for instance, sent millions of text messages to people warning them not to share “blasphemous” content online.

The flip side of this is that terror outfits are given free rein to go about indoctrinating people on social media unchallenged. A recent survey by a leading newspaper revealed that 41 out of 64 sectarian and banned organizations are active on social media in violation of the National Action Program (NAP) on terror.

These proscribed extremist organizations – including Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), formerly Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan – run over 700 Facebook pages, which are liked by more than 160,000 users. In the state’s crackdown on social media behavior, these outfits have enjoyed immunity, with the federal agencies focusing their sights on progressive and secular elements. In short, it has been business as usual.

“[Blasphemy] should be rooted out even if the government has to block the entire social media network, otherwise the patience of the followers of the Prophet may run out”

The most disturbing aspect of the blasphemy issue is that parts of the judiciary are actually aligned with the extremist tendency and do little to hide their attitudes. The Chief Justice of Islamabad, High Court Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui – a man who embraced and kissed the killer of Salman Taseer, the Punjab governor slain for having the audacity to oppose tightening of blasphemy laws – declared in March that “the evil [blasphemy] should be rooted out even if the government has to block the entire social media network, otherwise the patience of the followers of the Prophet may run out”.

Shortly after, the country’s Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, issued a statement saying “We can go to the extent of permanently blocking all social media websites which refuse to cooperate with us in blocking blasphemous content.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are a scourge that has been used by clergy to go after anyone they dislike. Pakistan’s dreaded dictator, Zia Ul Haq, introduced life imprisonment or the death penalty for those using derogatory remarks against the Prophet Muhammad in 1986. The Federal Shariat Court subsequently made capital punishment mandatory on conviction, establishing the law as a “divine commandment,” which means anyone who challenges it is labeled instantly a blasphemer. Since 1990, over 65 people have been murdered by vigilantes over blasphemy allegations.

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