Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani court has sentenced 86 members of a far-right religious party to 55-year prison terms each for taking part in violent protests against the acquittal of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case, party officials say.
The verdicts were announced late on Thursday night by a court in the northern garrison city of Rawalpindi, Pir Ejaz Ashrafi, a senior leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) party, told Al Jazeera.
The 86 TLRYA activists were arrested in November 2018, as the party led violent protests against the acquittal by the country’s Supreme Court of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for having allegedly committed blasphemy in 2009.
Days of protests saw TLRYA activists – led by party leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi – block major highways and destroy public property across the country, but mostly centred in the central province of Punjab.
At the time, senior TLP leader Pir Afzal Qadri had called for the judges who announced the acquittal to be killed.
The charges against those sentenced include destroying public property, attacking passers-by and disrupting citizens’ everyday life. Ashrafi said the sentences were “harsh” and that his party would be appealing the decision at the high court.
“This is the murder of justice. We are hopeful that they will suspend the verdict in the high court, and our legal team is working on it,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone from the eastern city of Lahore, where the TLYRA is based.
Bibi, a Christian woman from the central Pakistani village of Ithan Wali, was accused by two Muslim women of having committed blasphemy by insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad during an argument over a drinking water vessel in 2009.
In 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Bibi, ruling that prosecution witnesses had lied to implicate her [Shakil Adil/AP Photo]
She spent eight years on death row, with rights groups arguing that there were numerous fair trial concerns in her case, as are commonly reported in most blasphemy prosecutions in Pakistan.
In 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted Bibi, ruling that prosecution witnesses had lied to implicate her.
In May, she flew to Canada where she was forced to seek asylum to guarantee her and her family’s safety after the verdict.
Blasphemy against Islam is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the crime can carry a mandatory death sentence. Increasingly, accusations have led to violent attacks by mobs or assailants, with at least 75 people killed in such attacks since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
Two of those killed – a sitting federal minister and a serving provincial governor – were attacked for having supported Bibi during her trial.
Last month, a court in the central city of Multan sentenced university lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for blasphemy after a six-year trial. Hafeez has spent most of his incarceration in solitary confinement due to threats against his life, his lawyer says.
One of his lawyers, Rashid Rehman, was murdered in 2014 for defending him.
The TLYRA has publicly endorsed violence in the name of the blasphemy laws, with a regular chant a protests such as the November demonstrations for which the activists were sentenced on Thursday calling for all blasphemers to be beheaded.
Rizvi, the TLYRA chief, is currently out on medical bail as he faces charges of inciting hatred and violence at the rallies. His brother, Ameer Hussain Rizvi, and nephew are among those who were sentenced on Thursday, Ashrafi said.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.