Pakistani clerics who led violent protests over blasphemy acquittal are charged with terrorism
Pakistani officials have been unnerved by the amount of support for Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik party. (AP: Anjum Naveed)
Leaders of a hard-line Islamist group that staged violent protests across Pakistan after a Christian woman was acquitted of blasphemy will face charges of terrorism, according to the Government.
- 3,000 supporters of hard-line group TLP have been arrested
- Government is cracking down on the group, after they caused violence and chaos for weeks
- Asia Bibi and her family are seeking asylum
Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi and several senior figures were detained last month after they shut down major cities. They will also face sedition charges.
The country’s Supreme Court in October overturned the conviction of Asia Bibi, who had been on death row since 2010, and ordered her free.
The mother of four was the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for allegedly insulting Islam’s prophet Muhammad.
The decision set of a wave of violent protests, with TLP demanding that Ms Bibi be executed, the court judges be killed and the government be overthrown.
Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said Mr Rizvi had been “charged under sections of sedition and terrorism” in a police station in the eastern city of Lahore. Three other senior TLP figures are facing the same charges.
“Today we have decided to take legal action against the TLP leadership,” Mr Chaudhry told a press conference.
“All those who were directly involved in destroying property, who misbehaved with women, who set fire to buses, are being charged under laws of terrorism at different police stations.”
The move represents a hardening of the authorities’ stance towards the group, which in late 2017 paralysed the capital Islamabad for several weeks and clashed with the police in deadly protests.
Protests against Pakistan’s blasphemy verdict had brought life to a standstill in areas around the country. (AP: KM Chaudary)
TLP members called off their protests after negotiating with the military and reaching a deal with the Government, which made many concessions to appease the group.
However, Mr Rizvi was then detained, which authorities said was not an arrest but was for his own protection.
Mr Chaudhry said more than 3,000 TLP members had also been arrested.
Extremist group was founded in response to blasphemy case
The TLP, whose main focus is protecting Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, was founded out of a movement supporting a bodyguard who assassinated Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer for advocating for Ms Bibi in 2011.
Since she was freed on October 31, Ms Bibi and her family have been constantly threatened. Several countries have offered her asylum, however it is not known if she and her family have left the country.
In early November, Ms Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook fled the country and sought asylum in the Netherlands.
Blasphemy is a deeply emotive issue in Pakistan’s staunchly religious society, and officials have been unnerved by how much support Mr Rizvi’s TLP has garnered across the country in the two years since the group entered mainstream politics.
Mr Chaudhry said Mr Rizvi’s deputy, Afzal Qadri, was also charged over terrorism and sedition, along with senior TLP leaders Inyatul Haq Shah and Hafiz Farooq ul Hassan.
Mr Qadri shocked many Pakistanis last month when he called for the overthrow of the army chief, an unthinkable comment in Pakistan, where the military is rarely criticised in public and the army normally does not tolerate such dissent.
“Sedition has a sentence of life imprisonment, they can face life imprisonment. All the charges will be submitted before courts,” Mr Chaudhry said.