ISLAMABAD – A Pakistani court has sentenced 87 members of a radical Islamist group to 55-year prison terms each for their involvement in violent rallies following the acquittal of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case.
The members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik group were convicted and sentenced late Thursday in the city of Rawalpindi, close to the capital, senior party official Ejaz Ashrafi told EFE on Friday.
“Anti-terrorism Court No. 1 judge Shaukat Kamal Dar sentenced 87 members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (Pakistan) to 55-year imprisonment each,” Ashrafi said.
The convicts would also have to pay a fine of 50,000 Pakistani rupees (nearly $325).
He said party members were convicted for instigating a riot, beating up police officers and damaging public and private property during widespread protests in November 2018 following the acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case.
“This is a murder of justice. We are being punished for protecting the prophet,” Ashrafi said.
The TLP has vowed to appeal the sentence in a higher court.
The 55-year-long prison sentencing is rare in Pakistan where prisoners usually serve a maximum of 25-years of their sentences in jail.
Bibi, a mother of five, was accused by two women of insulting Prophet Muhammad in 2009. A court sentenced her to death in 2010 with the verdict being upheld four years later by the Lahore High Court.
She was released from prison after eight years on death row in November 2018 after being acquitted by the Supreme Court and exonerated of blasphemy charges on Oct. 31, 2018.
Bibi has now settled down in Canada after leaving Pakistan in May last year as she faced death threats from Islamist groups.
Her acquittal triggered widespread protests by hardliners in the country where blasphemy is a sensitive issue with 97 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million inhabitants being Muslims.
The protests virtually paralyzed the country for three days.
The harsh Pakistani anti-blasphemy law was established in the British colonial era and was reformed by the dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.
Since then, there have been nearly a thousand accusations for blasphemy, a crime that in Pakistan can carry capital punishment, although no convict has ever been executed.