A Pakistani court has sentenced 86 people to 55-year prison terms each for taking part in violent rallies over the acquittal of a Christian woman in a high-profile blasphemy case.
Those convicted were all workers and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a hard-line Islamist party that had spearheaded violent protests across Pakistan in late 2018 in the wake of Asia Bibi's acquittal.
An anti-terrorism court in the city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, announced the verdicts late on January 16 following a trial that lasted for more than a year.
Senior party leader Pir Ejaz Ashrafi said the sentences -- unusually harsh in Pakistan, where blasphemy is a very sensitive issue -- would be appealed.
Those convicted are not expected to spend more than 25 years in prison -- the equivalent of a life sentence under Pakistani law.
Among those sentenced were a brother and a nephew of TLP head Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 and sentenced to death on charges of insulting Islam. She consistently denied the charges against her.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned Bibi’s conviction in 2018. But following nationwide rallies against the ruling, authorities held her in protective custody before she was allowed to leave for Canada last year to reunite with her family there.
Domestic and international human rights groups say blasphemy allegations have often been used in Pakistan to intimidate religious minorities and to settle personal scores.
Last month, a court sentenced Junaid Hafeez, a 33-year-old Muslim professor, to death after finding him guilty of spreading anti-Islamic ideas.
Hafeez had been held for six years awaiting trial.
Nearly one month after the sentence was handed down, more than 80,000 people have signed a petition on change.org to ask for justice for Hafeez and for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to be repealed.