An court in Pakistan has sentenced a man to five years “rigorous imprisonment”—jail and hard labor—for a blasphemous Facebook post, in what is believed to be one of the first such cases under controversial cybercrime laws.
Sajid Ali was charged with posting blasphemous and derogatory content against revered Islamic figures on the social network in 2017. Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in majority-Muslim Pakistan, where the laws can carry a potential death sentence for anyone deemed to have insulted Islam. Even unproven allegations have led to mob lynchings and murder.
Prosecutor Munam Bashir Chaudhry told AFP the case is the first to be tried under a section of the cybercrime laws, which were passed in 2016, pertaining to hate speech. There have been other cases of prosecution against “online blasphemy” in Pakistan, including one in 2017 that saw a man sentenced to death for sharing what the court said was blasphemous content on social media.
However, none of the previous convictions have come under the cybercrime laws, according to Chaudhry.
Pakistani authorities say they have registered about 500 cases in total under the cybercrime laws since they came into effect. Critics of the laws say they are open to abuse by government agencies to restrict freedom of expression in a country where activists have long warned of a shrinking space for dissent.
In 2017 the Islamabad High Court ordered the government to open an investigation into “online blasphemy,” threatening to ban social media platforms that failed to censor content insulting Islam and its values.
Pakistan famously blocked Facebook for two weeks in 2010 over blasphemous content. It also blocked YouYube from 2012 to 2016 due to a film about Islam’s Prophet that led to violent protests across the Muslim world.