Pakistan's government has announced it will try detained leaders and activists of a radical Islamic party on "treason and terrorism" charges for instigating action against the state and for damaging public property.
The allegations stem from November's nationwide street protests against the Supreme Court's acquittal of a Christian woman who had been on death row for blasphemy. The violent demonstrations were organized by the leaders of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a political party that began as a religious group.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told a news conference Saturday that 3,000 TLP members have been taken into "protective custody," including Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the chief and founder of the party.
Chaudhry said the arrests mostly took place in Punjab province, which is the power base of the Islamist party.
"The government has now decided to further the legal action against all leaders of TLP. Therefore, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who is the Ameer (chief) of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, has been charged for sedition and terrorism in Lahore (capital of Punjab)," the minister said.
Chaudhry added that Rizvi's deputies have also been charged with treason and terrorism.
However, he explained that TLP activists and followers who were not directly involved in violent actions during the rallies would be set free after pledging not to engage in such "illegal and unconstitutional" political activities in the future.
TLP leaders and activists, if found guilty, could face life imprisonment, the minister said.
Rizvi had led three days of crippling countrywide protests in late November 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 Muhammad. The protesters blocked key roads in major cities, including the national capital, and attacked people and burned cars.
In speeches during the protests, TLP chief Rizvi and other 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.
Bibi and her family have been in hiding since her release. Her lawyer fled Pakistan shortly after the landmark court ruling announced on October 31, saying his life was in danger.
Pakistani officials insist Bibi is in a safe place in the country and dismiss reports the woman has fled Pakistan. Rizvi's party has petitioned the Supreme Court to review its decision.
Some Western countries have offered Bibi and her family asylum. Pakistan's government maintains that once the judicial process is concluded Bibi can go to any country like any other free Pakistani citizen.
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan where mere allegations have led to mob lynchings. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated in early 2011 by one of his official guards in Islamabad just weeks after he appealed for the pardon of Bibi and called for reforming the blasphemy law.
Several months later, a Christian federal minister, Shahbaz Bhati, was shot and killed near his residence in the capital for demanding reforms to prevent misuse of the law that gives the death penalty to those found guilty of insulting Islam or its prophet.
TLP staunchly supports implementation of the law and has used the issue as a platform to add followers, contest elections and launch widespread, often violent, protests in the country.
Since its emergence in 2017, TLP has arranged numerous protests, some of which have turned violent and paralyzed major cities across the country for weeks.
The religious group was created in 2017 and is registered with Pakistan's Election Commission. The party was able to secure about 2 million votes in the July general elections. TLP was inspired by Taseer's assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, who was later sentenced to death and executed in 2017. Qadri had been seen as a hero by TLP leaders and members.
VOA's Extremism Watch Desk contributed to this report