LAHORE – An anti-terrorism court has jailed a man for 13 years after he posted what it deemed sectarian hate speech on Facebook, in probably the very first punishment in the country for spreading sectarianism on social media.
Saqlain Haidar, 32, who ran a small hotel in Chiniot district , was also fined 250,000 rupees for “posting hateful material against companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on Facebook”, an official told AFP, requesting anonymity.
“The convict was arrested on October 27 after locals complained about him and he was charged for spreading sectarian hatred under various clauses of the anti-terrorism act,” said Abdul Majeed, a senior local counter-terrorism official.
Majeed said the accused was released on bail a day later, then arrested and imprisoned on November 21 after the court convicted him.
Pakistan has started clamp down against hate mongers as part of a “National Action Plan” to counter terrorism and extremism.
In May an imam in Kasur was jailed for five years for inciting hate against Shia sect.
In October a former leader of a banned sectarian party was imprisoned for six months for hate speech.
Bytes for All, a human rights group, said it had not been able to verify the details of Haidar’s case, but added: “We are extremely concerned that an anti-terrorism court has been used to hear a case apparently related to online speech rather than to any violent activities.
A spokesman pointed out that banned militant groups including the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have a significant social media presence in Pakistan and “appear to be operating freely under the eyes of authorities”.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has blocked hundreds of jihadist and sectarian websites and social media accounts in the past but they often pop up anew under different names.
Bytes for All said Haidar’s case was the first it knew of in which someone was convicted for posting sectarian material on Facebook, but that blasphemy charges were often brought against social media users.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, a Muslim nation of some 200 million people where even unproven allegations can stir violence.
On Friday an angry mob in Jhelum torched a factory after one of its employees was accused of committing blasphemy, with the army deployed over the weekend to quell unrest in the area.