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Pakistan Blocks Social Media Amid Crackdown on Islamists

A supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) Islamist political party hurls stones towards police during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Lahore, Pakistan April 13, 2021.

Pakistan temporarily blocked access to all social media platforms Friday amid a crackdown on a radical Islamist party leading recent nationwide violent demonstrations against France over the publication of anti-Islam cartoons in a French magazine.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority confirmed blocking Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, TikTok, and Telegram on orders from Pakistan’s Interior Ministry. The suspension lasted four hours, with the PTA saying the action was taken. “to maintain public order and safety.”

The media shut down came as police in the eastern city of Lahore prepared to clear a large ongoing demonstration by the radical Islamist party Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan, a day after the government declared the party a banned group under the country’s anti-terrorism laws.

Thousands of TLP activists had taken to the streets across major Pakistani cities Monday to protest the arrest of their leader, Saad Rizvi. The protesters blocked key highways, causing traffic jams, paralyzing business and routine life for three days in Pakistan.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan, a radical Islamist political party, chant slogans during a protest against the arrest of their party leader, Saad Rizvi, in Lahore, Pakistan, April 15, 2021.
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan, a radical Islamist political party, chant slogans during a protest against the arrest of their party leader, Saad Rizvi, in Lahore, Pakistan, April 15, 2021.

The extremist Islamist party has been demanding that Islamabad expel the French ambassador over the publishing of cartoons in France depicting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad, an act condemned as blasphemous.

Police attempted to disperse the protesters, prompting violent clashes. Officials said assaults on law enforcement personnel killed two officers and wounded 580 others, many of them seriously. Three demonstrations also died in the clashes.

Angry protesters in other parts of the country inflicted damage on private and public property and disrupted the much-need supply of oxygen to hospitals at a time when Pakistan is in the grip of a third COVID-19 wave and thousands of patients contracting the pandemic are admitted in intensive care units.

The unprecedented attacks against police prompted the Pakistani government to swiftly outlaw TLP for indulging in terrorist attacks again the state.

Pakistani authorities said Thursday police and paramilitary forces had dispersed the demonstrators in all areas, but not in Lahore, where the TLP is headquartered.

The violence prompted France to advise hundreds of its citizens and companies on Thursday to temporarily leave Pakistan, citing “serious threats to French interests” in the South Asian nation.

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, responding to the French advisory told VOA the government was taking steps to improve the situation.

“We are aware of the advice, which appears to be based on their own assessment of the situation. For its part, the government is taking enhanced measures for the maintenance of law and order and preventing any damage to life and property,” Chaudhri said.

Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed defended the arrest of the TLP chief, saying Rizvi was planning to lead a march on Islamabad to besiege the capital in connection with the TLP’s demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador.

Ahmed dismissed the demand as illegitimate, saying entities like the TLP cannot be allowed to dictate terms to the Pakistani state.

The TLP has risen to prominence in Pakistan in recent years. Along with demonstrations against France, the party has pressured the Pakistani government into not repealing or reforming the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, which critics say often are used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal disputes.