Pakistan Islamists Call Off Anti-Blasphemy Protests After Vote Set to Expel French Envoy
Government bows to outlawed far-right party, releases more than 600 arrested during recent violence
[Islamabad] The Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party called off violent protests after the government introduced a resolution in Pakistan’s Parliament to debate expelling the French ambassador.
Violent clashes between angry demonstrators and police erupted across the country last week after Saad Rizvi, the head of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, was taken into custody on April 12.
Police in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, arrested Rizvi after he threatened to lead massive protests against the government if it did not expel Ambassador Marc Baréty by April 20 over blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in France.
The clashes continued for nine days, claiming several lives and leaving hundreds injured as the federal government on April 13 banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik under the country’s anti-terrorism law.
Violent protests and sit-ins on main highways left thousands of travelers stranded on the roads. The protests also disrupted the oxygen supply for patients hospitalized with the coronavirus.
In the wake of the deteriorating law-and-order situation, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation on Monday evening.
“Expulsion of the French ambassador, as demanded by the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, will not cause any damage to France, but rather badly affect Pakistan in many ways, particularly the economy,” he said.
Khan also urged the heads of states of Muslim countries “to collectively carry out an effective campaign against Islamophobia, to get the West to understand that it hurts 1.25 billion Muslims.”
The prime minister added that the “objective of the government and the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik party to uphold the sanctity of the Holy Prophet is the same; however, there is a difference in approach.”
Later, addressing a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, Khan expressed deep concern and said that “if Pakistan expels the French envoy, we must be ready to face dire consequences; Pakistan’s 27 ambassadors in the European Union could be repatriated.”
Peaceful protest is our constitutional, legal and democratic right, but due to the mishandling of the situation from the government side, the country bore a huge loss
Meanwhile, in Lahore, government representatives and leaders of the banned Islamist party held marathon talks into the night.
The government team included: Federal Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed; Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri; Punjab Governor Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar; and Provincial Law Minister Muhammad Basharat Raja. Tehreek-e-Labbaik was represented by Allama Dr. Shafique Amini, Mufti Umair-al-Azhari and other senior clerics.
Ahmed announced in a video statement on Tuesday that “Tehreek-e-Labbaik has agreed to end its protest across the country after the government agreed to table a resolution regarding the expulsion of the French ambassador in the National Assembly on Tuesday evening.”
The minister continued that “at the demand of the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s leadership, cases registered against party supporters under the terrorism law will be dismissed as well.”
The National Assembly met in special session on Tuesday evening for debate on the expulsion of the ambassador.
Amjad Ali Khan, a legislator from the prime minister’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, presented a resolution that strongly condemned “the French president’s blasphemous remarks that hurt the feelings of hundreds of millions of Muslims in the name of freedom of expression.”
The anti-France campaign has been ongoing for months, since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of a magazine in Paris to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
The resolution also asked to “appraise all European countries, including France, of the gravity of this matter.”
The secularist Pakistan People’s Party, the largest in the opposition, boycotted the special session of Parliament.
Meanwhile, other opposition parties expressed serious concerns over the text of the resolution and asked to amend it.
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Ali Muhammad Khan, minister of state for parliamentary affairs and a member of the National Assembly, told the house the resolution was based on the exact text of the discussions held between the government and Tehreek-e-Labbaik.
Asad Qaiser, speaker of the National Assembly, advised the two sides to jointly prepare the bill and present it to the body.
After no consensus was reached on Tuesday, the National Assembly will resume debate on Friday.
Amini, a prominent scholar and a member of Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s Central Advisory Council, or Majlis-e-Shura, told The Media Line that “in November 2020, the government inked an agreement with us that the French envoy would be expelled from the country by April 20, but unfortunately, some government officials showed complete incompetence and only made the situation worse.”
“We hold sit-ins, not for our own sake, but for the honor and dignity of the Holy Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him,” Amine added.
“Peaceful protest is our constitutional, legal and democratic right, but due to the mishandling of the situation from the government side, the country bore a huge loss,” he said.
Amini declined to speak about the release or present location of party chief Rizvi.
Earlier on Tuesday, it was widely reported that Rizvi had been released from prison. A spokesperson for the Punjab prison department also confirmed the release to The Media Line, but, as of press time, no federal or provincial official or party leader had spoken about his release or location.
“Initially only oral instructions were given by high-ups to make some necessary arrangements for Rizvi’s release, but what happened after that, we don’t know,” a prison official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity.
Ali Muhammad Khan told The Media Line that “though we have taken some tough steps, in the end we have saved the country from a deadly crisis.”
“After following a legal process, the ban on Tehreek-e-Labbaik will be reversed, but it will take some time,” the state minister for parliamentary affairs also said.
Ahmed, while addressing a news conference in Islamabad on Wednesday afternoon, said that “all issues have been settled with the proscribed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).”
“At least 200 cases against the violent activists will proceed under due legal process,” the interior minister also said, adding that “669 activists of the banned TLP have been released.”
“The TLP can file an appeal against the decision to ban it within 30 days; a special committee will decide the appeal,” he said. “The writ of the state has been ensured and no one will be allowed to take the law into his own hands.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Tehreek-e-Labbaik supporters held a rally outside Ahmed’s residence in his hometown, Rawalpindi.
The demonstrators raised signs bearing slogans and chanted against the federal minister. A heavy contingent of paramilitary troops and police was deployed around the residence.