Protests spread across Pakistan after blasphemy acquittal

Woman cleared after eight years on death row plans to leave the country on her release, family says

Students of Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), a wing of religious political party Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), protest  following the supreme court decision to acquit Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy, in Karachi on Thursday. Photograph:  Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Students of Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), a wing of religious political party Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), protest following the supreme court decision to acquit Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy, in Karachi on Thursday. Photograph: Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

 

Thousands of Islamist protesters have brought parts of Pakistan to a standstill, burning rickshaws, cars and lorries to protest against the acquittal of a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row on false charges of blasphemy.

Traffic jams held up ambulances and forced mothers to feed their babies by the side of the road, while authorities shut schools across most of the country.

Footage from the protests shows anti-blasphemy campaigners clubbing and throwing shoes at posters of Pakistan’s chief justice and the new prime minister, Imran Khan, who on Wednesday night threatened a fierce government response if protesters did not disperse.

The landmark release of Asia Bibi, a 47-year-old farm labourer, has pitched the country into the latest of several battles with supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a rabid, fast-growing political party that exists solely to punish blasphemers.

Ms Bibi was accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbours objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. But a three-judge panel set up to hear the appeal, headed by chief justice Saqib Nisar, ruled the evidence was insufficient.

Police have so far shied away from arresting protesters and the powerful armed forces, which often appear to align with Islamists, have yet to issue a statement, despite TLP leaders daring to call for mutiny in its ranks.

On Thursday, rightwing religious organisations, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD), a charity founded by UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed, and the Jamaat-Ulema-e-Islam, announced that they would join the TLP protest on Friday, in what could become an unmanageable conflagration.

‘Not safe in Pakistan’

The new government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) appeared to backtrack on Thursday evening, sending a five-member negotiating team to meet Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the TLP. Government officials released contradictory statements on whether they had placed Ms Bibi on the exit control list, which would prevent her fleeing the country.

Ms Bibi’s brother said she would leave Pakistan after her formal release from an undisclosed place where she is being held for security reasons.

James Masih said his sister was not safe in Pakistan and that paperwork for her release and departure to an unspecified country was being processed. He would not say where she planned to go. France and Spain have offered asylum.

In public speeches, Mr Rizvi, the TLP leader, has said his only demand is that the mother of five be put to death, the punishment for blasphemy under Pakistan’s penal code. “Our sit-in will go on until the government accepts our demand,” he said in a telephone interview, denying reports that the sit-in would soon be over.

Severe test

Imran Khan is scheduled to return on November 5th from a diplomatic visit to China, Pakistan’s oldest ally. Liberals hope that the prime minister, who echoed the TLP’s rhetoric on the campaign trail and has already backed down before the group, will stick to his newfound principles under the most severe test of a turbulent first 10 weeks in power.

“It’s up in the air,” said analyst Fasi Zaka. “You still get the feeling they are figuring out what to do.”

In a televised national broadcast late on Wednesday, prime minister Imran Khan warned the protesters the government would act against any prolonged blockade.

“We will not allow any damages. We will not allow traffic to be blocked,” Mr Khan said. “I appeal to you, do not push the state to the extent that it is forced to take action.” – Guardian/Agencies