[Islamabad] Pakistan’s interior minister on Wednesday recommended banning the far-right Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) political party under the country’s anti-terrorism law, after activists and supporters staged violent rallies across the country, leaving chaos in their wake.
The party is demanding the immediate expulsion of the French ambassador along with a boycott of French products over the French president’s defense of a teacher who displayed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, the federal interior minister, told a news conference in Islamabad on Wednesday evening that the Punjab provincial government “has requested the ban [of the party] and the summary has been sent to the federal cabinet for approval.”
Ahmad continued: “Two police personnel were martyred and 340 others injured in the violent areas and party workers placed hurdles in the way of ambulances and blocked highways and roads, causing difficulties for the general public.”
Meanwhile, police along with members of the Pakistan Rangers paramilitary law enforcement organization cleared the majority of highways across the country, but officers remain deployed to counter any reaction from the party’s backers.
Earlier, Tehreek-e-Labbaik party workers and supporters staged violent protests across the country after Lahore police took party chief Maulana Saad Hussain Rizvi into custody on Monday.
Rizvi was arrested after he threatened to lead massive protests against the government if it did not expel French Ambassador Marc Baréty by April 20 over the blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
French President Emmanuel Macron in October 2020 defended caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, saying they were protected by freedom of expression. Macron had angered the Islamic world by declaring radical Islam a threat following the gruesome beheading of a teacher who displayed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed during a class on free speech.
The law-and-order situation across Pakistan has remained dire for almost three days. Fatalities and injuries were reported in major cities including Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi. Road closures and nationwide protests disrupted the oxygen supply for patients hospitalized with the coronavirus. Violent protests and sit-ins on main highways left thousands of travelers stranded on the roads.
Rizvi is the son of hardline Sunni cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the previous head of Tehreek-e-Labbaik who led a huge protest rally against France on Nov. 15, 2020 and died suddenly four days later. A local official estimated that nearly 200,000 people attended his funeral in Lahore.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi had been successful in organizing massive countrywide protests against changes in the nation’s blasphemy laws during the former Nawaz Sharif-led government.
While addressing thousands of followers in January 2021, Saad Rizvi warned he would re-launch countrywide protests if the government did not expel the French envoy.
In February, the government and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan leaders signed an agreement, and it was decided the government would present the issue in parliament before April.
Fresh violent clashes between angry protesters and police erupted across the country on Monday evening and continued into Wednesday.
Protesters pelted dozens of vehicles, including ambulances, and set some on fire.
In Rawalpindi alone, more than 90 police personnel and several activists were injured and taken to various hospitals. Meanwhile, at least 24 police officials were critically injured during clashes in the garrison city of Jhelum. In addition, two police officers were killed and dozens injured in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.
All three cities are in the province of Punjab.
Our government was negotiating with Tehreek-e-Labbaik leadership on a priority basis but they were preparing for a protest
Three protesters were also killed during the clashes, according to media reports.
Alam Zeb, a deputy superintendent of police, told The Media Line that “protesters took scores of policemen as hostages and all of them were subjected to the worst physical torture, leaving at least 40 officials seriously injured.”
Rana Arif, Lahore police spokesperson, confirmed to The Media Line that the “police have registered a case against Saad Rizvi and other leaders under the terrorism act along with other charges.”
The protesters are holding sit-ins and blocking highways and roads across Pakistan, paralyzing life throughout the country for a third consecutive day. Violent protesters also threw stones at law enforcement personnel.
Islamabad, the federal capital, was cut off from the rest of the nation.
The Rawalpindi police spokesperson told The Media Line that “at least 38 police officers including a Rangers captain were among the critically injured who sustained multiple bone injuries during last night’s clashes with the protesters.”
Law enforcement agencies charged 200 suspects and sent them to various lockups.
Due to the road blockages, food supplies, including milk, was prevented from reaching markets, creating shortages ahead of the start of Ramadan.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan chaired a high-level meeting in Islamabad on Tuesday evening.
“Our government was negotiating with Tehreek-e-Labbaik leadership on a priority basis but they were preparing for a protest,” he said. “The next 24 hours are important and the situation will be under control.
“No one would be allowed to challenge the government writ,” Khan added.
The premier also held a one-on-one meeting with Pakistan army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and discussed the security situation, according to sources.
The Federal Cabinet approved the deployment of Rangers in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Jhelum and Bahawalpur.
Additionally, paramilitary troops have been deployed in the federal capital for the security of the Red Zone, where government and military buildings are located, and in the diplomatic enclave.
The Interior Ministry on Tuesday evening issued directions to suspend internet services in sensitive areas of the federal capital. The service has since been partially restored.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik media coordinator Arslan Tassaduq told The Media Line that “the protest will continue until the French ambassador is deported and Saad Rizvi is released; otherwise we will block the whole country.”
“The party leadership asked its supporters to hold peaceful sit-ins, but police took the first step and started baton charges with indiscriminate shelling of tear gas, which resulted in causalities on both sides,” Tassaduq added.
The protest will continue until the French ambassador is deported and Saad Rizvi is released; otherwise we will block the whole country
Meanwhile, the supply of oxygen cylinders for seriously ill patients in hospitals was badly affected by the protests. Pakistan is in the grip of a deadly third wave of the coronavirus.
Protesters blocked the ambulances that were carrying oxygen cylinders.
Dr. Yasmin Rashid, Punjab provincial health minister, told The Media Line that “maintaining the lifeline for serious COVID patients was a big crisis, but health officials with the support of the security forces managed to maintain it, otherwise it would have been a disaster for us.”
Pakistan recorded 4,681 new infections in the last 24 hours, the most during the third wave, taking the national tally to 734,423 confirmed cases. The country also reported 135 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, the highest single-day record during the third wave of the pandemic.
Official data shows that 15,754 people have died due to the coronavirus, and there are 4,216 critically ill patients in intensive care units across the country.
Allama Tahir Ashrafi, a prominent scholar and special assistant to the prime minister for religious affairs and interfaith harmony, told The Media Line that “Islamic ideologies cannot be used to create conflict and harm law and order in the country.”
“Immense love and unconditioned respect for the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the fundamental part of our religion,” he said.
“We are the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In Sharia, no Muslim is given the right to consider himself a good Muslim and to doubt the faith of others,” Ashrafi added.
“The way Imran Khan had addressed the UN General Assembly regarding the honor of our holy prophet, not any Islamic leader has dared to do,” he said, referring to the Pakistani prime minister’s September 2019 speech before the international body. “Khan spoke categorically on Islamophobia and explained what Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, means to us.”
Ashrafi quoted Khan, who said while addressing the UN General Assembly: “It hurts us when some malign or insult our beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. In human communities we have to be sensitive toward what causes pain to other human beings.”
Khan further said that “in Western society, and quite rightly, the Holocaust is treated with sensitivity, because it gives the Jewish community pain. That’s all we ask: Do not use freedom of speech to cause us pain by insulting our holy prophet. That’s all we want.”