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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

Pakistan agrees to review of Asia Bibi acquittal after protests

Deal reached to end countrywide demonstrations against Supreme Court verdict in blasphemy case

Pakistani policemen guard a closed market during protests in Karachi on November 2, 2018 against the acquittal of a Christain woman for blasphemy. AFP
Pakistani policemen guard a closed market during protests in Karachi on November 2, 2018 against the acquittal of a Christain woman for blasphemy. AFP

Islamist hardliners incensed by the acquittal of a Christian woman who had been jailed for blasphemy in Pakistan ended their mass protests on Saturday after the government agreed to submit the court decision to a review.

Ijaz Qadri, spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party (TLP), which has largely led the demonstrations, announced the conclusion of three days of sit-ins that have blocked major roads across swathes of the country.

The demonstrations broke out after the Supreme Court of Pakistan on Wednesday overturned a blasphemy conviction for Christian mother Asia Bibi, ending her eight-year ordeal on death row but infuriating Muslim conservatives.

"The party leaders have announced to end protest sit-ins across the country. Workers have been asked to disperse peacefully," Mr Qadri said after the deal was reached in a meeting with the government late on Friday.

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Read more:

Protests paralyse Pakistan cities for a third day

Woman acquitted of blasphemy to leave Pakistan

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Blasphemy is a massively inflammatory charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and the Prophet Mohammed can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.

Mobile services in major cities across Pakistan were shut down on Friday as religious parties took to the streets.

But late on Friday Religious Affairs Minister Noor-Ul-Haq Qadri and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary confirmed a deal had been struck to end the protests.

A five-point agreement, signed by both parties, said the government would not object to an appeal of the verdict, which was filed earlier in the Supreme Court.

"This is a big achievement that they agreed to approach the court and end their protest," Mr Chaudhary told the Dunya TV channel.

According to the agreement, which came after a failed first round of talks, legal proceedings will follow to impose a travel ban on Bibi and stop her leaving the country.

Ms Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Mulook, who said he would defend her during the appeal, left the country on Saturday citing fears for his life.

"In the current scenario, it's not possible for me to live in Pakistan," Mr Mulook, 62, said before boarding a plane to Europe.

"I need to stay alive as I still have to fight the legal battle for Asia Bibi," he said.

Earlier on Friday Pakistan's powerful military warned its patience had been thoroughly tested as hardliners called for a mutiny against its top brass and thousands joined protests.

"We are tolerating remarks against us but action can be taken according to the law and constitution," the spokesman told state media, warning the protesters not to "force us into taking action".

Since Wednesday's verdict, the TLP has been holding sit-ins in cities across the country with supporters blocking major traffic thoroughfares, causing gridlock and school closures in key hubs such as Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi.

Major roads — including the motorway connecting Lahore and Islamabad — were also blocked, effectively paralysing swathes of the country.

TLP, founded in 2015, blockaded the capital Islamabad for several weeks last year calling for stricter enforcement of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws.

That protest forced the resignation of the federal law minister and paved the way for the group to poll more than 2.23 million votes in the July 25 general election, in what analysts called a "surprisingly" rapid rise.

The protests continued despite Prime Minister Imran Khan's warning in a nationally televised address on Wednesday that the government would not tolerate violent protests.