Sixty eight Pakistani lawyers are facing blasphemy charges for allegedly shouting slogans against a police chief named after a revered follower of Prophet Mohammed, officials said.
Pakistan's 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," senior police official Ghulam Mustafa told AFP on Tuesday.
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.
"Our bar association has also passed a resolution that slogans were not raised against any sacred personality of Islam," Chaudhry said.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the majority of the 180 million population are devoutly Muslim.
Even unproven allegations can provoke a violent public response.
Mohammad Afzal Sayal, the president of Jhang Bar Association, said the protest was against the local police station chief but "certain elements tried to exploit it."
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, Sayal said.
The hardline Sunni Muslim ASWJ is widely seen as a front for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a group formed in the 1980s and responsible for murdering hundreds of Shiite Muslims, 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.
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