Life in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Mardan district came to a halt on Friday as thousands of workers and supporters of religious parties took to roads to pressure the government into releasing the 31 men convicted in the brutal murder of Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan student Mashal Khan, who was lynched in April 2017 after being falsely accused of blasphemy.
Thousands of members of the Tahaffuz Khatm-i-Nabuwat Organisation, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) joined by locals participated in the protest that began at Pakistan Chowk after Friday prayers.
Holding banners that read "Mashalyon [Mashal supporters], stop us if you can!", the protesters chanted slogans against Mashal and the government.
The demonstration led by Tahaffuz Khatm-i-Nabuwat leader Qari Ikramul Haq demanded that the men convicted for the murder be released.
Several of the men acquitted by the court, including Ajmal Mayar, attended the rally and were given a "Ghazi welcome" [Muslim fighters' welcome].
The rally was scheduled to march from Pakistan Chowk to College Chowk, but concluded earlier at Katlang Chowk after a dua (grand prayer) for those acquitted. The protest resulted in heavy traffic jams in the area.
Advocate Syed Akhtar, a JI leader and one of the counsels of the accused in the Mashal Khan murder case, in his address to the rally said the "entire ummah" stands behind those who have been convicted.
He said the protesters wanted to warn the government that if it goes ahead with appealing the acquittal of the 26 men in court, then "we will block the roads".
"Imran Ali [the man who shot Mashal] is our hero, he is a Ghazi," a religious leader said while addressing the gathering.
The JI had also held a gathering in Mardan on Thursday to 'welcome' those acquitted by the anti-terrorism court (ATC).
On Wednesday night, a jubilant crowd of religious party workers had gathered at the Mardan Motorway Interchange to "welcome" the 26 "heroes" who had been acquitted by the court, and to protest the ATC's verdict against the 31 convicts.
The charged crowd chanted slogans against the murdered student and vowed to "move the Supreme Court against the verdict".
At least six of the acquitted reached Mardan on Wednesday night. One of the acquitted, Aizaz, was welcomed and garlanded enthusiastically by the crowd.
Aizaz, who was showered with petals and carried on the shoulders of supporters, addressed the crowd in Pashto, vowing that anyone who committed blasphemy or spoke against Khatm-i-Nabuwwat would "meet the same end as Mashal".
It is pertinent to note here that the joint investigation team (JIT) tasked by the court with probing the murder of Mashal Khan found the student had not committed blasphemy. The JIT in its report stated that a group in the university had incited a mob against the 23-year-old on pretext of blasphemy.