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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Pakistan detains hardline cleric, supporters ahead of more blasphemy protests

The party has brought parts of the country to a standstill as they protest the acquittal of Asia Bibi

Police fire tear-gas canisters to disperse supporters of Islamic political party Tehrik Labaik Ya RasoolAllah (TLP) during a protest over the Khadim Hussain Rizvi arrest in Karachi, Pakistan 23 November 2018. EPA
Police fire tear-gas canisters to disperse supporters of Islamic political party Tehrik Labaik Ya RasoolAllah (TLP) during a protest over the Khadim Hussain Rizvi arrest in Karachi, Pakistan 23 November 2018. EPA

The leader of a religious party that called for the execution of Asia Bibi has been arrested along with hundreds of supporters in a crackdown on hardliners who have repeatedly held Pakistan's government to ransom.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi was detained on Friday night as his Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party planned another round of protests which have brought the country to a standstill.

As arrests continued during Saturday, police said up to 300 of his supporters were being held.

The TLP nearly paralysed Pakistan in the days after Asia Bibi, a Christian woman held for nearly a decade on death row, was acquitted of blasphemy late last month, after it called its protestors out to block major roads. Schools and offices were closed and commerce along major highways was halted.

The demonstrators had called for the deaths of the judges who quashed Ms Bibi's conviction for blasphemy and had called on soldiers to mutiny against the army.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the Pakistani far-right Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labaik. AFP
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party. AFP

Three days of disruption only ended when Imran Khan's government cut a deal promising to allow the TLP to petition against Ms Bibi's release. She remains hidden under state protection but is unable to leave the country until the petition has been heard by the supreme court.

Mr Rizvi was taken into “protective custody” ahead of a rally planned for Sunday in Rawalpindi, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said.

"The action was prompted by TLP's refusal to withdraw its call for protest on November 25. It’s to safeguard public life, property and order."

He said the crackdown was unrelated to Ms Bibi's case and the TLP had become “a continuous threat to the life and properties of the citizens and is doing politics under the guise of religion.

“The situation is fully under control, people should remain peaceful and fully cooperate with authorities," he continued.

The TLP party was formed in 2015 to campaign against reforms to Pakistan's harsh blasphemy laws and in support of Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for killing the Punjab governor who wanted to help Ms Bibi.

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The party has since become notorious for its ability to mobilise street protests and force the government to back down. It blocked a major Islamabad intersection for three weeks last year calling for the sacking of the then law minister for omitting a reference to the Prophet Muhammad in a new version of the electoral oath. The minister was eventually removed.

The party had also threatened another wave of protests in August after the far-right Dutch anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders said he would hold a cartoon drawing contest of the Prophet. The TLP had called for the expulsion of the Dutch ambassador and for diplomatic ties with the Netherlands to be severed. Mr Wilders eventually cancelled the contest.

The TLP has also vowed to return to the streets if Ms Bibi is ever allowed to leave the country and claim asylum abroad.

Mr Wilders said: “Fantastic news that Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who put a fatwa on my head, is finally arrested in Pakistan. I hope he will be jailed for the rest of his life. Good riddance!”

Earlier on Friday, Mr Rizvi had reportedly ordered his supporters to take to the streets if he was arrested.

His son said police had raided his Lahore religious school late on Friday evening.

"Police raided our madrassa and arrested our revered leader," Saad Rizvi told Reuters by telephone.

There were fears the arrest could spark violence from his supporters, but any protests on Friday night appeared small.

epaselect epa07185758 Supporters of religous group Tehrik Labaik Ya RasoolAllah (TLP) burn a bike during a protest over the Khadim Hussain Rizvi arrest in Karachi, Pakistan 23 November 2018. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) Chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi has been taken into protective custody by the police. EPA/SHAHZAIB AKBER
Supporters of religious group Tehrik Labaik Ya RasoolAllah (TLP) burn a bike during a protest over the Khadim Hussain Rizvi arrest in Karachi. EPA

Legal sources say there is little chance Pakistan's supreme court will reverse its acquittal of Asia Bibi, meaning she will almost certainly be freed to leave the country at some point.

She and her family have said they can no longer live in Pakistan and are understood to have been granted asylum in several European countries.

A UK church charity last week said her family were being pursued by vigilantes in Pakistan as they await her release from custody.

Hardline Islamists have been going door-to-door in the neighbourhood where her husband and daughters live, raising fears for their safety while they await her fate.