Reuters International

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani court jailed a former religious affairs minister for 16 years on Friday for taking kickbacks in arranging the annual Muslim haj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, media reported.

Hamid Saeed Kazmi was an influential minister in the government of the Pakistan People's Party that was in power from 2008-2013.

He was charged with hiring a substandard building to house Pakistani pilgrims to Mecca in 2009, charging exorbitant rents from the travellers and receiving kickbacks.

A special court also convicted two other former officials of the religious affairs ministry and jailed them for 16 and 40 years, respectively, Dawn newspaper reported on its website.

All three were taken into custody after the court announced the verdict. They have the right to appeal the order at Islamabad High Court.

Each year, more than 100,000 Pakistanis perform the haj pilgrimage, considered a religious obligation for practising Muslims.

The pilgrimage was marred last September by a crush that killed hundreds of people, including 109 Pakistanis.

(Reporting and writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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 Reuters International