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Pakistani authorities charged former Prime Minister Imran Khan and 150 other individuals with blasphemy this week, a move that critics called an effort by the new government of using religion “as a tool” to intimidate political rivals, Voice of America reported.
Officials said that the charges came after some Pakistani pilgrims jeered at new Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his delegation during a visit to Saudi Arabia last week. The individuals chanted “traitors” and “thieves” as Sharif’s delegation visited Medina, Islam’s second holiest city.
Authorities alleged that the hecklers were linked to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, adding that the former prime minister and his aides could be arrested if evidence connected them to the incident.
Khan rejected the charges as “ridiculous,” labeling them as an attempt by the government to stymie public frustration over the deepening economic and energy crises facing the country.
Human rights advocates also urged the government to drop the charges, while legal analysts questioned whether Pakistan’s blasphemy laws can be used in such a case. The laws apply when offensive remarks are made against the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Others also posited that Pakistan’s legal structure does not permit the registration of cases involving criminal acts committed on foreign soil.
Blasphemy laws carry the death penalty in Pakistan, although no one has been executed to date. Even so, blasphemy is a very sensitive topic in the predominately Muslim country. Suspects are often attacked and sometimes lynched by mobs.
The recent allegations come a month after lawmakers approved a motion of no-confidence against Khan’s government, ending his nearly four-year-old administration. Khan, meanwhile, has denounced the vote as a US-backed plot to oust him for fostering stronger relations with China and Russia.
The United States has denied the accusations.
Meanwhile, Khan has demanded the new government announce snap elections and has held a series of protests against it.