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Pakistani lawyers face blasphemy charge after row with police

Lawyers in the central town of Jhang were protesting outside government offices on Monday, shouting slogans about the police chief which led to the blasphemy accusations.

LAHORE, Pakistan // A group of Pakistani lawyers are facing blasphemy charges after shouting slogans against a police chief named after a revered follower of Prophet Mohammed, officials said on Tuesday.

Pakistan has strict laws against insulting Islam, which can sometimes carry the death penalty, but rights activists say they are often misused to settle personal disputes.

The latest incident came when lawyers in the central town of Jhang rose up against local police chief Umar Daraz after one of their colleagues was allegedly manhandled by officers following a road accident last week.

They protested outside government offices on Monday, shouting slogans about the police chief that led to the blasphemy accusations.

“A blasphemy case has been registered against eight lawyers and about 60 others after a citizen complained that they were shouting slogans derogatory to a caliph of Islam and a companion of the Prophet Mohammed,” said police official Ghulam Mustafa.

The historical Umar ibn Al Khattab, a close companion of the Prophet Mohammed, was the second Muslim caliph and is revered by Sunni Muslims.

Mushtaq Chaudhry, a local lawyer, said his colleagues were not shouting slogans against the caliph Umar, but his police namesake.

Mohammad Afzal Sayal, president of Jhang Bar Association, said the protest was against the local police station chief but “certain elements tried to exploit it.”

Mr Sayal said the blasphemy case was brought after pressure from Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi, the head of the banned sectarian group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ).

The charges brought against the lawyers carry a sentence of three years in prison, he said.

The ASWJ is widely seen as a front for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a group formed in the 1980s and responsible for murdering hundreds of Shiites, whom it considers heretics.

The interior ministry banned ASWJ as a terrorist group in 2012, but it operates freely in Pakistan and its banners are frequently seen at rallies.

Gunmen last week shot dead prominent lawyer and human-rights activist Rashid Rehman, who was defending a university lecturer accused of blasphemy.

A recent report from a US government advisory panel said Pakistan used blasphemy laws more than any other country in the world, listing 14 people on death row and 19 others serving life sentences for insulting Islam.

* Agence France-Presse