In a first verdict of its kind, a Pakistani court sentenced a man to death for committing blasphemy on Facebook. But rights groups say the government is using blasphemy as an excuse to muzzle free speech in the country.
A counterterrorism court handed down Saturday the verdict to Taimoor Raza, a Shiite Pakistani from the eastern city of Okara, for posting "derogatory" remarks about Sunni religious figures and the prophet of Islam's wives.
Defense lawyer Rana Fida Hussain told the Agence France-Presse news agency that Raza had an argument on Facebook with a government official, who brought charges against his client in the court.
Hussain said that Raza, who was arrested in April last year, was innocent and that he would appeal against his client's death sentence.
Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where around 97 percent of its 180 million inhabitants are Muslim. Rights advocates have long been demanding a reform of the controversial blasphemy laws, which were introduced by the Islamic military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.
Activists say the laws have little to do with blasphemy and are often used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas.
In April, 23-year-old journalism student Mashal Khan was killed by a vigilante mob over allegations of blasphemy in Pakistan's northwestern city of Mardan. The brutal murder shocked many liberals who believe that state policies are emboldening religious fanatics.
Crackdown and intimidation
Government critics and secular writers in Pakistan fear religious extremists and the government alike when it comes to blasphemy allegations, which are enough to put them in prison or get vigilante mobs to lynch them.
After Bangladesh witnessed a spate of killings of secular activists, Pakistan is experiencing a government crackdown on liberal bloggers, journalists, academics and activists. At the same time, religious fanatics are targeting secular social media activists, who have to go into hiding or self-censor to save their lives.
The "abduction" of liberal bloggers in January – allegedly by Pakistan's security forces – and the recent lynching of a secular journalism student shocked activists and the journalist community in Pakistan. There has been increased social media vigilantism, which is forcing critics of the government and military as well as human rights activists to censor their thoughts and words.
Pakistan is already one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, but the blasphemy issue has made it even more dangerous for them. Earlier this year, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan threatened to block all social media websites with "blasphemous content."
"The crackdown on dissidents is actually a political witch hunt," Arshad Mahmood, a Pakistani writer and social media activist, told DW. "Those who are critical of the state and the military are being picked up by the government agencies. I wish the authorities had shown the same enthusiasm in targeting Islamist militants," Mahmood added.
The fight for free speech
Despite threats to their lives, journalists and activists in Pakistan refuse to give up the fight. They say they would continue to strive to report and express their views independently.
"Civil society needs more unity now to protect freedom of speech. In the age of social media, independent thinkers have a platform to voice their concerns against certain actions of the government, and it is their right," Nahyan Mirza, an Islamabad-based development professional, told DW.
"Pakistani society, unfortunately, is being controlled to a large extent by the right wing," Mirza added. "These groups will never tolerate social, cultural and intellectual change that poses a challenge to their power. But I am hopeful the change will come soon."