Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani police have registered a blasphemy case against organisers of the feminist Aurat Azadi [Women’s Freedom] March in a northwestern city, while a court in the country’s second city dismissed the same charges as having no grounds.
Police in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar registered the First Information Report (FIR) under the country’s strict blasphemy laws, which can carry a mandatory death penalty, on Thursday.
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In a statement, organisers of the march, which is held annually to mark International Women’s Day on March 8, condemned the allegations as “baseless and false”.
“Since the March, women marchers have been met with countless death and rape threats including a leading newspaper, Daily Ummat, referring to [feminist] marchers as prostitutes and whores,” said the statement.
“These accusations and threats have now gone as far as falsely accusing us of blasphemy, an accusation that gravely endangers the lives of hundreds of women.”
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the country’s strict laws mandate the death penalty for the crime of insulting Islam’s Prophet, and carry a life sentence for insulting Islam’s holy book, the Quran. The feminist organisers have been accused of the former offence.
In Lahore, a court dismissed a similar petition for being based on questionable video evidence and said the demonstrators’ right to protest was protected under constitutional protections for free speech.
“The fact that the petitioner took offence from a vague slogan and labelled it as blasphemy reflects his own state of mind and pattern of thought,” read the order from Judge Hafiz Rizwan Aziz.
“He has alleged a very serious offence without any iota of supporting material.”
Allegations of blasphemy surfaced soon after this year’s march, appearing to be centered on doctored video and images. Organisers shared side-by-side comparisons of the original and doctored videos, the latter of which made it appear as if demonstrators were chanting against Allah.
“We are being incriminated for crimes we never committed, slogans that were never raised, and banners that were never carried,” said organisers in Thursday’s statement.
“Additionally, the incidents which are being falsely framed as blasphemous in these charges are not even from the Islamabad March and the allegations regarding them have been thoroughly debunked by both media outlets and the respective city chapters where they came up.”
Organisers said the blasphemy case was registered in Peshawar “to satisfy the bloodthirst of religious extremist vigilantes”.
This week, the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party has held days of violent protests across Pakistan on the issue of blasphemy, demanding the French ambassador be expelled over comments by French President Emmanuel Macron last year that were perceived to be “blasphemous”.
Pakistan’s government on Thursday declared the TLP a “terrorist organisation” and cracked down on activists across the country, after at least two policemen were killed and more than 500 wounded in those protests.
The French government, meanwhile, has advised all French citizens and companies to temporarily leave Pakistan due to the security situation around the TLP’s protests.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim