Pakistan police charge 68 Pakistani lawyers with blasphemy

Activists of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) hold candles and placards as they shout slogans during a protest against the killing of Pakistani lawyer Rashid Rehman in Islamabad on May 8, 2014. Critics say the blasphemy laws are misused in Pakistan

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Pakistani police have charged 68 lawyers with blasphemy in what is thought to be the biggest ever case of its kind in the country.

The charges were brought in Punjab after lawyers protested when police detained one of their colleagues.

During the protest the lawyers are accused of insulting a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Police say they acted after a local man complained.

Critics say blasphemy laws are often misused to settle scores in Pakistan.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws

  • After partition in 1947 Pakistan inherited offences relating to religion which were first codified by India's British rulers in 1860
  • In the 1980s clauses were added to the laws by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq
  • One clause recommends life imprisonment for "wilful" desecration of the Koran, another says blasphemy is punishable by death or life imprisonment
  • Muslims constitute a majority of those booked under these laws, followed by the minority Ahmadi community
  • A majority support the idea that blasphemers should be punished, but there is little understanding of what religious scripture says as opposed to how the modern law is codified

The case in Punjab's Jhang district was registered against eight named lawyers and 60 unidentified ones.

The lawyers had been campaigning for the arrest of five policemen they accused of illegally detaining and manhandling a lawyer in the city of Jhang last week.

A complainant told the police his feelings had been hurt when some lawyers ridiculed a police officer who shares his name with the second Caliph, Omar.

The most serious blasphemy charges can carry the death penalty in Pakistan. But in this case the defendants face at most three years in jail if the case comes to trial and they are convicted, the BBC's M Ilyas Khan in Islamabad reports.

Many believe the case is an example of how easily the blasphemy laws can be misused, he says. They say the case is the result of a feud between police and the legal fraternity.

No arrests have been made.

The investigating officer in the case, Inspector Ashiq Hussain, told the BBC that since the entire legal community of Jhang city had become involved, efforts were being made "to resolve the matter, and it may not lead to arrests".

Even so, those named in the case, some of them Shia, may not now feel safe in the future in a country with a history of sectarian violence, our correspondent adds.

Allegations of blasphemy against Islam are taken very seriously in Pakistan. Correspondents say members of minority groups are often unfairly targeted.

Last week a lawyer representing a man charged with blasphemy in Multan, in Punjab, was shot dead by gunmen.

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