A court in Pakistan has sentenced 86 people to 55-years each for their role in violent protests sparked after a Catholic woman, Asia Bibi, was acquitted on blasphemy charges.
The sentences were delivered by a lower court in Rawalpindi on Jan. 16, AFP reported.
The brother and cousin of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who heads up the hard-line Islamist group, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), were among those convicted.
Pir Ejaz Ashrafi, another senior TLP leader, characterized the proceedings as a “murder of justice,” telling AFP the sentences are “quite ruthless and harsh.”
Ashrafi said they would challenge the verdict in the Lahore High Court.
In November 2018, over 2,000 people, including Rizvi, were arrested for organizing violent protests following the acquittal of Bibi, from central Punjab who was convicted in 2010 for insulting the Muslim Prophet Muhammed during an argument with her Muslim villagers. Bibi was sentenced to death by hanging.
After years on death row, Pakistan’s supreme court overturned her conviction in 2018, which sparked mass unrest by hard-line Islamists.
Ashrafi has contended that the protests were against Rizvi’s arrest, and not Bibi’s acquittal. Rizvi for his part had demanded the execution of Bibi prior to his arrest.
In November 2018, an Anti-Terrorism Court in Pakistan’s Punjab province indicted Rizvi on charges of sedition and terrorism, but has yet to announce a date for their final ruling due to the fractious nature of blasphemy laws in the country, Voice of America reported last month.
As noted by AFP, the issue of blasphemy in Pakistan is so contentious, unsubstantiated rumors of the offense can lead to death at the hands of mobs.
Critics have long contended blasphemy laws are used to persecute religious minorities or settle personal scores.
Meanwhile, another TLP spokesman told AFP the government was trying to subdue the party but would not succeed as they are “not standing for Khadim Rizvi or any organisation, but for a pure Islam.”
In May last year, Bibi flew to Canada where she was reunited with her family who live under assumed identities.