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Pakistan's Islamist Party Warns Government of Countrywide Protests on Blasphemy Verdict

FILE - Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) Islamist political party raise their hands as they listen to the speech of their leader during a protest march to condemn a cartoon competition by the Netherlands, in Lahore, Pakistan, Aug. 29, 2018.
FILE - Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) Islamist political party raise their hands as they listen to the speech of their leader during a protest march to condemn a cartoon competition by the Netherlands, in Lahore, Pakistan, Aug. 29, 2018.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious-turned-political party, called for countrywide protests after the country's supreme court delayed a final judgment on the fate of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death in 2010 for committing blasphemy.

"This is a religious matter. The Christian lady has committed blasphemy and admitted of using derogatory language against Prophet Muhammad. According to Islamic law, it is not permitted to pardon her. We cannot allow this to happen. We will raise our voice and launch protests throughout the country," Ejaz Ahmad, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan's spokesperson, told VOA.

The group also issued a recorded video statement on Wednesday, warning the government and the judiciary of dire consequences if Asia Bibi was acquitted.

"If Pakistan's Supreme Court releases or pardons Asia Bibi, a blasphemer, who herself admitted of using derogatory remarks against our Prophet Muhammad, there will be terrible consequences against the government and the judiciary," Muhammad Afzal Qadri, an official of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan said in a video statement.

The video message is being circulated on social media and the mainstream media and has generated a debate inside Pakistan over the fate of Asia Bibi.

It is not known when the high court will announce its final verdict about the defendant.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, or TLP, is a staunch supporter of the blasphemy law and openly justify violence to safeguard what they call the honor of the prophet.

Khadim Rizvi, TLP's founder, has repeatedly vowed not to spare anyone charged with committing blasphemy against the prophet.

Blind eye

Rights activists in Pakistan say the government is turning a blind eye on radical Islamist elements who issue inflammatory statements on the highly sensitive and controversial issue of blasphemy.

"When Asia Bibi's case is in the Supreme Court, how can anyone belonging to any political party give such rash and non-serious statements? I believe both the government and the judiciary should take notice of this," Zohra Yusuf, a rights activist from Pakistan, told VOA.

"Due to such radical elements in our society, it has become harder for the minorities to survive or to feel safe. These irresponsible statements further destroy the social fabric of this country," Yusuf added referring to the Qadri's latest statement.

Mehdi Hassan, a Pakistan-based analyst, agrees with Yusuf's concerns and says the government needs to hold those who try to divide the nation accountable.

"The political parties should address the blasphemy problem and play a role because democracy gives a level playing field to everyone. But look what our political parties [TLP] are doing? They are further politicizing and fanning religious intolerance through Asia Bibi's case," Hassan told VOA.

"Where is the government and why they are not taking any action against these open threats," he added.

Blasphemy remains a highly sensitive topic in Pakistan, where strong religious sentiments have led to mob violence and killings in the past. Rights activists also point towards the history of settling personal vendettas and disputes through the controversial blasphemy law.

Asia Bibi Case

Blasphemy in Pakistan, if proven, can lead to the death penalty or life in prison.

Asia Bibi, 53, was accused of committing blasphemy and using defamatory language about Islam's Prophet Muhammad in 2009 when she got into an argument with some Muslim women while working in a field in Punjab province.

A trial court condemned the mother of five to death in 2010 on blasphemy charges. The decision was upheld by the Lahore High Court in 2014 and was then referred to the country's Supreme Court in 2015 for a final appeal.

Two prominent Pakistani politicians were gunned down after they demanded reform to the country's controversial blasphemy laws in 2011 following Asia Bibi's death sentence.

Governor's murder

In 2011, Salman Taseer, Punjab's governor, was killed by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was apparently angry over Taseer's demand for reforms in the blasphemy law.

Qadri was hanged by the Pakistani government in February 2017. Since then, his grave has turned into a shrine by supporters of his ideology.

Qadri is praised as a hero by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, the newly emerged religious party that has openly vowed to follow Qadri's legacy of not sparing anyone charged with committing blasphemy.

TLP was established in 2017 and came into prominence in Pakistan's July election after securing over two million votes and two provincial assembly seats in the country's Sindh province.

The party has a history of launching countrywide protests on blasphemy related issues.

Earlier in August, thousands of TLP protesters began a march from Lahore to Islamabad demanding the severing of diplomatic ties with the Netherlands and expelling of its ambassador to Pakistan after a Dutch lawmaker announced a cartoon contest on the Prophet Muhammad.

Last year, thousands of supporters and members of TLP gathered in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, paralyzing it for weeks. They accused the government of committing blasphemy over its attempt to modify a parliamentary bill related to a "Khatam-e-Nabbuwwat" oath that affirms the end of prophecy with Prophet Muhammad.

TLP alleged that the government favored Ahmadis, a religious minority, by dropping the oath as a requirement. The sit-in ended after the military intervened and convinced the protesters that the planned modification would be dropped.

Ahmadis consider themselves Muslims but do not believe that prophesy ended with the Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan's constitution does not recognize Ahmadis as Muslims and require them to disclose their faith when working for the government.

VOA's Urdu service contributed to this report

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    Madeeha Anwar

    Madeeha Anwar is a multimedia journalist with Voice of America's Extremism Watch Desk in Washington where she primarily focuses on extremism in the South Asia region.

    Follow Madeeha on Twitter at @MadeehaAnwar