According to the BBC, the prosecutor in the case said he “believed it was the first time the death penalty had been awarded in a case related to social media.” A tally kept by Al Jazeera records 68 killings in Pakistan related to blasphemy allegations since 1990.
The prosecutor told The Times of India that Taimoor Raza was arrested “after playing blasphemous and hate speech material on his phone on a bus stop in Bahawalpur, where a counter-terrorism officer arrested him and confiscated his phone.” It was the material on Raza’s phone that led to his arrest.
The Guardian reports that the accused’s brother said Raza “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.” Raza’s defence attorney told The Guardian the initial charges were limited to “insulting remarks on sectarian grounds,” which carries a maximum two-year jail sentence, but that “derogatory acts against prophet Muhammad,” which carry a death sentence, were added later.
According to The Times of India, Raza will be able to appeal the ruling to the Pakistani High Court and the Supreme Court.
The Pakistani government has recently cracked down on blasphemy online. In March, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered a ban on blasphemous content, and the Interior Minister warned that the government may block social media sites entirely if they “refuse to cooperate.”
A Facebook spokesperson provided the following comment:
“We are deeply saddened and concerned by the death sentence served in Pakistan for a Facebook post. Facebook uses powerful systems to keep people’s information secure and tools to keep their accounts safe, and we do not provide any government with direct access to people’s data. We will continue to protect our community from unnecessary or overreaching government intervention.”