Pak court hands down sentences to 86 Islamists

Islamabad: A Pakistani court has sentenced 86 members of a radical Islamist party to 55-year prison terms each for taking part in violent rallies in 2018 over the acquittal of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case, a party official said Friday.
The verdicts, unusually harsh for Pakistan, were announced late Thursday night by the court in Rawalpindi, a garrison city near Islamabad. The trial had lasted for over a year.
Pir Ejaz Ashrafi, a senior leader of the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, said the sentences would be appealed.
Among those sentenced was Ameer Hussain Rizvi, the brother of firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi who heads the party. “Justice has not been done,” Ashrafi told The Associated Press. “We will challenge the verdicts.” The 86 were charged with damaging public property, beating people up and disrupting normal life by staging sit-ins against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi earlier that year.
Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 and sentenced to death on charges of insulting Islam.
The country’s Supreme Court overturned her conviction in 2018 but after hard-line Islamists staged nationwide rallies against the ruling, authorities continued to hold her in protective custody before she was allowed to leave for Canada last year to reunite with her family there.
In two related cases, Salman Taseer, the governor of eastern Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his bodyguards in 2011 for defending Bibi.
His assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, was celebrated as a martyr by hard-liners following his execution, with millions visiting a shrine erected in his honour near Islamabad.
Later in 2011, Pakistan’s minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated, also after demanding justice for Bibi.
Last year, authorities arrested Rizvi for leading incendiary rallies. He was later freed on bail on medical grounds pending trial.
Last month in Multan, a court convicted Junaid Hafeez, a Muslim professor, of blasphemy, sentencing him to death for allegedly spreading anti-Islamic ideas. He was held for six years awaiting trial and spent most of that time in solitary confinement. (AP)

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