Pakistan, Nov. 3, 2018: The acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was on death row under the blasphemy law, by the Pakistan Supreme Court has sparked nationwide protests in that Islamic nation.
Most protesters are supporters of the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which stands for the “Here-I-Am Movement.” It is a rising party known for organizing street protests in opposition to changes to the blasphemy law.
On November 1 the government met for talks with the TLP leadership, but failed to reach an agreement. Afterwards, the government announced late at night that mobile phone services would be suspended on November 2.
The country is still paralyzed – schools are shut, universities have postponed exams, flights have been delayed and trains have changed their routes due to the protests, while several major roads have been blocked across the country.
There have also been unconfirmed reports of protesters clashing with police.
At around 8pm local time, the so-called “Father of the Taliban,” Maulana Sami ul Haq, was stabbed in his own home in the Pakistan city of Rawalpindi. The mullah had been one of the leading voices calling for the reversal of the Supreme Court’s decision, and though no group has yet claimed responsibility, his death has further heightened fears of spiraling retaliatory violence.
Recently Afghan officials had reached out to Sami ul Haq asking him to help convince the Taliban to begin peace negotiations, so his murder, apparently by people who had access to him, may have been related to issues other than Asia Bibi’s case.
“These people have gathered to demand that Asia Bibi be hanged,” Lahore-based journalist Asif Aqeel told World Watch Monitor. “They have also damaged property across the country. Buses, rickshaws, motorcycles are burnt and shops are looted and ransacked.”
Some sources reported that Asia Bibi will fly abroad within 24 hours and that she has already been reunited with her family.
However, following the Supreme Court verdict, the man who filed the initial complaint against her in 2009 – the local village imam – has petitioned for a judicial review of this decision. The TLP has requested that until the review takes place – usually within 30 days – her name be added to the Exit Control List (ECL) so that she be banned from leaving the country.
The Pakistani government had earlier announced on its Twitter account that it did not intend to add her name to the list, but by late in the day had apparently reversed that – at least until the outcome of the judicial review – in order to defuse the tense situation in the country, according to Punjab’s information minister Fayaz ul Hassan Chuhan. This was after talks between the government and the TLP.
Even before the Supreme Court’s decision was made public, in a press conference aired on YouTube the TLP warned the judges they would meet a horrible end if they were to free Asia.
Asia Bibi’s defense lawyer Saif ul-Malook said after the verdict that he feared he could no longer live in Pakistan himself. However, he said, the risks have been worth the reward.
“I think it’s better to die as a brave and strong man than to die as a mouse and fearful person,” he told AFP. “I extend my legal help to all people.”
The country’s Christian minority community (around 2 percent of the population) is especially concerned about potential repercussions, with reports that churches are now “on alert” and Christians are trying to keep a low profile.
“Today Christians across Pakistan are holed up in their homes,” one source said. “TV provides no comfort, news is conflicting and complex on all fronts and phones are down. We are all so worried about one another. There is a huge operation against the extremists but still no assurance on Asia and her family and their future.”