Imran Khan has been booked under Pakistan’s blasphemy law along with 150 others after the country’s new prime minister Shehbaz Sharif was met with abusive language on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia.
The case was filed by the Punjab police against the former international cricketer, who was ousted as prime minister in April, several former cabinet ministers and key members from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.
Among those named in the charges are former ministers Fawad Chaudhry and Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the Dawn newspaper reported.
The complaint has been registered under the blasphemy law of Pakistan’s criminal code. It alleged desecration of the Prophet’s mosque in the holy city of Medina, hooliganism and hurting the sentiments of Muslims.
The action against Mr Khan comes after several videos emerged on social media showing hundreds of people raising slogans against Mr Sharif and his delegation when they arrived at the Al-Masjid-e-Nabawi mosque in Medina on Thursday.
The videos showed people, reportedly pilgrims from Pakistan, shouting “thief” and “traitor”, and directing explicit language at Mr Sharif and his delegation. Saudi authorities on Friday said they arrested five Pakistan nationals allegedly involved in the incident.
Several social media users in Pakistan were outraged after the complaint was filed under the blasphemy law which activists have long rallied against, as anyone convicted under the law can face up to 10 years in jail or even face the death sentence.
While no one has been executed under the law, suspects are often attacked and sometimes killed by mobs. Asad Umar, a former minister in Mr Khan’s cabinet, came to his defence and called the charges “ridiculous”.
The first information report (FIR), a formal document to introduce charges by the police against an accused, was filed by a local resident of Faisalabad city. He alleged more than 100 supporters of Mr Khan were sent to Saudi Arabia from Pakistan and the UK under a “planned and thought out scheme and conspiracy”.
Mr Khan has already denied his involvement in the Saudi Arabia incident. In an interview with the ARY News channel, he said the public was angry after his government was overthrown by a vote of no confidence last month.
“This is the public reaction. We are not asking them to come out,” he said in the interview. He also questioned the validity of the FIR and asked “how they connected us with what happened in Medina”.
In a separate comment to Dawn, he said: “I cannot think of asking anyone to do sloganeering at that sacred place. Nobody who loves the prophet can even think of it.”
Mr Sharif, who was sworn in as prime minister of Pakistan on 11 April with a majority, is the brother of former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Mr Khan’s government was overthrown after a joint opposition tabled a vote of no-confidence in the country’s parliament following the Supreme Court’s intervention.
Since then, Mr Khan has held mass rallies with his supporters and alleged unsubstantiated claims of foriegn conspiracy against him.
Rana Sanaullah, Pakistan’s current interior minister, said Mr Khan and his allies could be arrested if evidence showed their involvement, he told ARY News. “No one will be spared in this matter and law will take its course,” he said.