Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah on Thursday stopped the police from registering more cases against the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leadership under the country's blasphemy laws over the Masjid-i-Nabwi incident, stressing that "religion should not be dragged into politics".
He made the remarks as the court resumed hearing the petition filed by PTI leader and former information minister Fawad Chaudhry calling for cases registered against the party's members under the country's blasphemy laws to be declared “illegal”.
The cases were registered against top figures of the previous regime — including Imran Khan, Sheikh Rashid, Fawad Chaudhry, Qasim Suri and Shahbaz Gill — after some Pakistani pilgrims chanted slogans at Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his delegation during their visit to the Masjid-i-Nabwi last month.
During the hearing today, Justice Minallah remarked: "Registering cases for your own benefit is a disrespect to one's own self. It is a huge violation of human rights."
He observed that it was the responsibility of the state to bring about an environment of patience and stability in the country. "If there is no patience, things like these (registering cases) will happen, which are wrong. Whatever happened was not right."
"Apparently, it seems that the cases registered in Pakistan were not justified," he said.
The IHC chief justice pointed out that religious sentiments were important but the state had a responsibility. Whether the state had done such things or not, the reality was that in the past, people's lives had been endangered, he recalled, giving examples of the Sialkot incident — where a Sri Lankan national was lynched over blasphemy allegations — and the Mashal Khan case.
It was, the judge continued, the responsibility of the state to oversee these matters. Justice Minallah stressed that the state should gather the entire leadership and decide that religion should not be used as a "political tool". "We have already suffered a lot," he observed.
At this, PTI's Fawad Chaudhry, who was present in the hearing, said that the cases should have first been presented before the federal cabinet. "It should be the government's commitment to never use the religion card," Chaudhry said. "This has happened for the first time in the history of Pakistan."
But Justice Minallah interjected that such things had been happening in the past.
Meanwhile, the deputy attorney general pointed out that the requests were filed by "private citizens", adding that it showcased the public sentiment on the Madina incident.
"Were they so overcome with emotion that all of them submitted the same request?" Fawad asked, adding that the law regarding the matter was "very clear".
Subsequently, Justice Minallah said that the Constitution was clear too, stating that politics should have some principles and religion should never be used for it.
He also ordered the police to convince the court with regard to the validity of the previous cases that were filed and summoned the attorney general for assistance.
At the outset of the hearing today, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) clarified that it had not initiated any inquiry in its counter-terrorism or cybercrime wings against the PTI leadership in the case. "The local police has begun investigation into the cases," its representative told the court.
Here, Faisal Chaudhry, PTI's counsel, told the court that the Islamabad police have begun investigations into four such complaints.
Meanwhile, Fawad said that between 500 to 700 PTI leaders and supporters had been named in the cases. "We just want to cases against us be cancelled," he added.
During the hearing, former deputy speaker Qasim Suri's lawyer requested the court to club his petition against the attack on his client by PML-N workers last month, with Fawad's application.
Imran, PTI leaders booked
On May 1, Faisalabad police had registered a case under 'blasphemy laws' against the PTI chairman and over 150 others, including some stalwarts of the party, in the wake of the Masjid-i-Nabwi incident.
The FIR was registered under the following sections of the Pakistan Penal Code: 295 (harming or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult a religion), 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 296 (disturbing religious assembly) and 109 (abetment).
Complainant Muhammad Naeem, a resident of Faisalabad, nominated top leaders of the PTI and Imran's close associates, including Chaudhry, Gill, Suri, Sahibzada Jahangir, Aneel Musarrat as well as Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and his nephew Sheikh Rashid Shafiq.
The complainant alleged the Masjid-i-Nabwi episode was a "planned and thought-out conspiracy" and supported his claims by referring to videos and speeches made by certain PTI leaders.
Naeem further said the suspects had violated the Quranic verses by raising political slogans and using abusive language on the holy premises where scores of pilgrims were offering prayers.
He said most of the suspects belonged to a political party (PTI), as was evident from the video statements that appeared on the official Twitter accounts of PTI leaders and workers "before and after" the nasty incident.
Pilgrims accost, chant slogans against PM Shehbaz, federal ministers
Last month, a group of Pakistani pilgrims had accosted, heckled and chanted slogans at Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his entourage at the Masjid-i-Nabwi in Madina during their three-day visit — their first foreign trip since assuming office — to Saudi Arabia.
According to videos circulating on social media, Pakistani pilgrims at the mosque started chanting slogans of "chor, chor" (thieves, thieves) as soon as they saw the prime minister.
In another video, the pilgrims could be seen heckling and hurling obscenities at federal ministers Marriyum Aurangzeb and Shahzain Bugti, as the pair are escorted by Saudi guards. In another video, a pilgrim could be seen pulling Bugti's hair from behind.
Following the incident, the media director of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Islamabad confirmed that some of the pilgrims involved in the incident had been arrested. The official said that the protesters had been taken into custody for "violating the regulations" and "disrespecting" the sanctity of the holy mosque.