A nationwide massive police crackdown in Pakistan has detained hundreds of leaders and activists of an Islamist party, which recently staged crippling street protests against the Supreme Court's acquittal of a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy.
Authorities said Saturday that a majority of the arrests took place in the country's most populous province of Punjab, the power base of the ultra-right Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party.
The crackdown began late Friday and TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, was among the first detainees, along with many of deputies. Rizvi's arrest sparked violent clashes with police in some areas. Police and hospital officials said several people were injured.
The religious party had organized three days of crippling protests countrywide earlier this month to denounce the top Pakistani court for acquitting Asia Bibi, a member of the minority Christian community who had spent eight years on death row for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Mohammad.
TLP spokespeople insisted the police crackdown against the party and its leadership was aimed at deterring them from protesting the acquittal.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, however, dismissed those allegations and explained Rizvi had been placed under "protective custody" because he refused to withdraw a call for fresh street protests on Sunday and turned down offers to organize the rally at a place proposed by the government.
"It's to safeguard public life, property and order and has to do nothing with Asia Bibi case," Chaudhry noted. The minister went on to call for the public to remain "peaceful and calm", vowing the "law shall take its course and it cannot be left to individuals."
In speeches during the recent protests TLP leaders had threatened the Supreme Court judges who freed Bibi and urged the judges' cooks and servants to kill them. They also condemned Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Pakistani army chief for siding with the court and the Christian woman.
The woman along with her family is in hiding after her release. Pakistani officials say she is located in a safe place in the country and dismiss reports Bibi has fled Pakistan.
Bibi's lawyer fled Pakistan shortly after the landmark court ruling, saying his life was in danger.
Rizvi's party has petitioned the Supreme Court to review last month's decision. Some Western countries have offered Bibi and her family asylum. The Pakistan government maintains that once the judicial process is concluded Bibi can go to any country like any free Pakistani citizen.
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan where mere allegations have led to mob lynching of people. A provincial governor and a federal minister were assassinated by extremists because they had called for reforms in the blasphemy law that gives the death penalty to those found guilty of insulting Islam or its Prophet.
Pakistan Crackdown Arrests Islamic Cleric, Hundreds of Followers