By Mubasher Bukhari
LAHORE, Pakistan – A Muslim cleric who has led anti-blasphemy rallies in Pakistan has been charged with sexually abusing a student at a religious school, police said on Thursday.
Police said charges were filed against Aziz-ur-Rehman after cellphone videos purporting to show the cleric forcing himself on the student went viral on social media.
The case has caused a stir in Pakistan, a mainly Muslim country, and outrage on social media, with many calling for a strict punishment for the cleric.
Rehman denied the accusation of sexual abuse in a video statement issued on social media, saying that he was drugged before the filming of the alleged abuse. He said this was part of a plot to throw him out of the seminary, the Jamia Manzoor-ul-Islamia.
Rehman, who is in his 60s and is a member of a prominent religious political party, has worked as a custodian of the seminary for several years.
The seminary said the cleric has been expelled from his position, and Wafaq-ul-Madaris, the body that oversees the religious schools system, said it has stripped him off his title, mufti, which means a religious scholar.
A police spokesperson said police could not locate the cleric when they visited the seminary after the student filed the sexual abuse complaint.
The student, who police said appeared to be in his early 20s, said in his complaint that he has given several video and audio recordings to help police investigate, adding he had gone into hiding because he had received death threats.
The police said the student had told them that the cleric had been abusing him for several years. He said he started filming the abuse after he got sick of it, and sent the video clips of the abuse to the head of the Wafaq-ul-Madaris.
It was not clear how the video clips began circulating on social media.
Rehman has often been seen in photos and videos of anti-blasphemy rallies held in recent months to denounce publication of cartoons in France depicting the Prophet Muhammad.
Over 2.2 million children attend religious seminaries in Pakistan. Sexual abuse cases are often hushed up, although some parents have recently been coming forward to file complaints.
A nongovernment organization called Sahil that works to stop child abuse reported 2,960 cases of child sex abuse in 2020 throughout the country, not just in seminaries.