Islamabad - Officials in Pakistan confirmed Sunday that former Prime Minister Imran Khan, along with 150 others, had been booked under the country's blasphemy law, a move that drew condemnation of the government for using religion "as a tool" to intimidate political rivals.
The disputed blasphemy charges stemmed from heckling of new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his delegation by some Pakistani pilgrims during an official visit last week to Saudi Arabia.
The hecklers were allegedly linked to Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Several videos circulating on social media have shown people chanting "traitors" and "thieves" on Thursday as Sharif's team members visited the holy mosque built by Islamic Prophet Mohammad in Medina.
Saudi authorities confirmed Friday they arrested several Pakistanis for their alleged involvement in the incident.
Rana Sanaullah, the Pakistani interior minister, in a tweet Sunday defended the blasphemy charges levelled against Khan in a police complaint, promising to bring to justice those behind the incident in Saudi Arabia. "No one will be spared in this matter and law will take its course," the minister told a local television channel.
Sanaullah added that the former prime minister and his aides could be arrested if evidence linked them to the incident.
Khan and his aides have rejected the charges as "ridiculous" and an outcome of public pressure building on the new government in the wake of the deepening economic and energy crises facing Pakistan.
Last month, a parliamentary no-confidence vote ousted Khan's nearly four-year-old government and Sharif replaced him as the head of a coalition.
Fawad Hussain, a former minister and central member of Khan's party, drew the attention of international human rights groups to alleged misuse of the blasphemy law by the Sharif government.
"Pakistan Interior minister in his statements has accepted the use of blasphemy laws as a tool to charge political opponents," he wrote on Twitter.
'Probably first time in the history of Pakistan, [a] government is using Blasphemy laws against opposition earlier private sects and extremists weaponised these sections to avenge personal vendetta but today....[the] interior minister triumphantly claimed victimisation as success," Hussain said in a subsequent tweet.
Rights activists have also dismissed the blasphemy charges as political victimization, saying they are meant to deter Khan from organizing anti-government protests.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan demanded the cases against the PTI leadership be withdrawn immediately. "No government or political party can afford to allow allegations of blasphemy to be weaponised against its rivals," the rights watchdog said on Twitter.
The blasphemy provision used in the police complaint specifically states that offensive remarks made against the Islamic prophet would only be treated as blasphemous. Additionally, law experts noted that Pakistan's legal framework does not allow registration of cases in criminal acts committed on a foreign land.
Critics have long called for reforming Pakistan's blasphemy law, saying it is often abused by influential members of society and religious fanatics to intimidate religious minorities and pressure opponents into settling personal feuds.
Insulting the Prophet Mohammad can carry a death penalty in Pakistan but no one has been executed to date because higher courts often overturn lower court convictions in blasphemy-related cases.
Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in the predominantly Muslim Pakistan where suspects are often attacked and sometimes lynched by mobs.
"This is the public reaction because they are angry,' Khan told the private ARY news channel while responding to the heckling incident. "How they connected us with what happened in Medina," he asked in the interview the channel will broadcast Monday.
On Sunday, Khan told reporters that "anyone who loves the prophet cannot even think of asking people to chant slogans at the sacred place (of worship in Medina)."
The deposed Pakistani leader alleges the United States sponsored the no-confidence vote against him as punishment for a visit he made to Moscow against Washington's advice. Khan visited President Vladimir Putin on the day the Russian leader ordered troops to invade Ukraine.
Khan has organized mass rallies across major cities in recent days against the Sharif administration, dismissing it as an "imported government" imposed by the United States.
Washington rejects the accusations as untrue.
Khan is demanding the government announce early elections and has called on his supporters to march on Islamabad in the last week of May and stage a sit-in protest until the demand is met.
Government officials have dismissed the demand, saying the elections will be held next year as scheduled.
Sharif took the oath of office April 11 on a day when he was due to be indicted and sent to jail in a massive money laundering case. He is the younger brother of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was convicted in a corruption case and imprisoned.
The Khan government allowed the elder Sharif to leave the jail and go to London for six weeks to seek urgent medical treatment in 2019. He has not returned to Pakistan.