PESHAWAR: Thousands of Pakistanis protested against the Supreme Court’s top judge on Friday, after he issued a ruling related to blasphemy that sparked online backlash and thinly veiled death threats.
A campaign targeting Supreme Court Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa began after he ordered the release of a man from the Ahmadi community, considered heretical by hard-line Muslim scholars.
The man had been accused of disseminating a forbidden Ahmadi text, which firebrand clerics consider tantamount to blasphemy — an incendiary issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of offending Islam have sparked violence.
Around 3,000 people gathered at rallies across the northwestern city of Peshawar after Friday prayers.
Crowds blocked roads and chanted “Death to Qadianis” — a slur referring to Ahmadis — as well as “Long live Islam.”
The Supreme Court issued a statement on Thursday evening defending his ruling, denying that it went against the Islamic constitution of Pakistan.
“This impression is absolutely wrong,” it said. “The organized campaign against judiciary and judges is unfortunate.”
A spokesman for Pakistan’s Ahmadi community, Amir Mahmood, told AFP that “one-sided negative propaganda is being spread against this judgment” which protected a man from “being persecuted for his religious belief.”
Isa’s ruling first went unnoticed two weeks ago, before it was highlighted by social media accounts linked to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party behind violent anti-blasphemy protests.
Posts calling for him to resign have been shared thousands of times on social media.
The Pakistani chapter of the Taliban militant group — known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — called Isa “an enemy of Islam” and “a damned man.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said Isa’s ruling “protects the constitutional right of all religious minorities to freedom of religion or belief.”
“Those political leaders and sections of the media that are responsible for this campaign must be restrained,” the organization said on social media platform X.
Ahmadis have been discriminated against and persecuted for decades in Pakistan.
The second amendment of Pakistan’s constitution, made in 1974, declares Ahmadis non-Muslims.
The law also prohibits them from professing to be Muslims or spreading their faith, and allows the death penalty for those found guilty of insulting Islam.
In his judgment, Isa ruled that according to the constitution, “every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion.”
“Freedom of faith is one of the fundamental tenets of Islam. But sadly, in matters of religion, tempers flare up and the Qur’anic mandate is forsaken,” he added.
He also said the book allegedly disseminated by the accused had not been outlawed at the time of the alleged crime in 2019.
Cleric Fazlur Rehman, the influential leader of the conservative religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, said Isa’s reasoning was “false and based on bad intentions.”
In 2011, the governor of eastern Punjab province was killed by his bodyguard after calling for reforms to the stringent blasphemy laws that Ahmadis frequently fall foul of.