Lahore - A Pakistani anti-terrorism court has jailed a Shiite Muslim for 13 years after he posted what it deemed sectarian hate speech on Facebook, officials said Monday, with rights activists condemning the ruling as "extremely concerning".
Saqlain Haidar, 32, who ran a small hotel in Chiniot district south of Islamabad, was also fined 250,000 rupees ($2,300) for "posting hateful material against companions of the Prophet of Islam on Facebook", an official of the Counter Terrorism Department told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Also read: Asylum-seekers buy fake Taliban threat letters to sneak into Europe
Abdul Majeed, a senior local counter-terrorism official, confirmed the incident.
"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," he told AFP.
Majeed said the accused was released on bail a day later, then arrested and imprisoned on November 21 after the court convicted him.
Pakistan, a mainly Sunni Muslim nation, had previously tolerated many sectarian organisations. But it has taken action this year as part of a "National Action Plan" to counter terrorism after a Taliban attack killed more than 150 people, mostly children, at an army-run school in Peshawar.
In May an imam in the Kasur district of Punjab was jailed for five years for inciting hate against a rival minority Shiite 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 Punjab province 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.