Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a hardline religious political party, block the road during a protest against a court decision to overturn the conviction of Christian woman Asia Bibi in Karachi on October 31, 2018. مناصري حزب تحريك لبيك باكستان (TLP) المتشدد يقطعون الطريق أثناء مظاهرة ضد قرار المحكمة إلغاء حكم إعدام ضد المسيحية آسيا بيبي في كاراتشي في 31 أكتوبر/تشرين الأول 2018.Photo: AFP/Rizwan Tabassum
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a hardline religious political party, block the road during a protest against a court decision to overturn the conviction of Christian woman Asia Bibi in Karachi on October 31, 2018. Photo: AFP

The Pakistan government has put a travel ban on Asia Bibi – a Christian woman involved in a blasphemy case released by the Supreme Court on Wednesday – as part of a deal with the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) on Friday.

The travel ban on Asia Bibi comes despite a plea by her husband for international help, because he fears for his family’s safety. Ashiq Masih criticized the government deal with hardline Islamists, which is says has left his wife in legal limbo. He called on authorities to protect her, AFP reported.

The radical Islamist TLP had blocked roads in all major cities of the country following the verdict in Asia Bibi’s favor, demanding that the decision be overturned and she be hanged. The group also called for the sacking of the three-judge Supreme Court bench that acquitted Bibi.

Indeed, a leader of the group had even asked for the judges to be murdered. “All three are wajib-ul-qatal [liable to be murdered],” TLP co-founder Muhammad Fatal Badri said while addressing protestors in Lahore. “Someone in their house – their security guard, driver or cook – should kill them,” he added.

This was an ominous and overt instigation to violence by a prominent leader of the group which also issued threats against the Army Chief.

The patron-in-chief of the TLP, Afzal Qadri, accused the Army Chief of being a ‘Qadiyani’, a derogatory term for Ahmadi Muslims, deemed heretics by Islamist groups and excommunicated by the Constitution of Pakistan.

“Army’s Muslim generals should rebel against [the Army Chief],” Afzal Qadri bellowed while addressing a crowd, looking to instigate mutiny within the Army ranks.

TLP’s shutdown of the country and threats came despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s address on the day of the judgment urging mobs to “not clash with the state”. Khan left for China the next day hoping to get a bailout package similar to the one given by Saudi Arabia.

The government negotiated a deal with the TLP in order to get the protesting mobs off the street, which had brought the country to a standstill. The government was represented by Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Noor-ul-Haq Qadri and Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat, with Afzal Qadri and Waheed Moor representing the TLP.

Details of deal with TLP

The five-point agreement, which was widely condemned, said:

a) The government will not interfere in the review petition filed against the verdict in the Asia Bibi case;

b) The government would initiate legal proceedings to put Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List immediately;

c) Due process will be initiated to investigate action for all those martyred in the protests;

d) Those protesters arrested would be released immediately;

e) Tehrik-e-Labbaik apologizes for inadvertently hurting anyone.

Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) is seen as having capitulated to the TLP’s demands after it had violently challenged the writ of the state, and issued death threats to heads of various institutions.

‘Capitulation to violent extremists’

Dawn, the country’s leading English-language paper, said the speech by PM Imran Khan had been “consigned to the dustbin of history”, because “yet another government has capitulated to violent religious extremists who neither believe in democracy, nor the Constitution.”

This is the second time in 12 months the Pakistani state has succumbed to TLP’s demands despite the group breaking the law and instigating violence. Last year, the group had kept the capital hostage over changes to the Election Reforms Bill, which it deemed blasphemous.

Even federal ministers have been critical of the way the government dealt with the TLP.

“Appeasement to avoid bloodshed sends a dangerous message to non-state actors and undermines the very concept of democratic peaceful protest. The state has to enforce rule of law and stand by state institutions, especially when they are targeted,” Federal Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari said.

Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry accused the protesters of “treason” for challenging the writ of the state. “[The protesters] insulted the Constitution of Pakistan. The state will not let it go unnoticed,” he said.

Thousands arrested

More than 5,000 people were booked for damaging public property in the aftermath of the Asia Bibi verdict. Some 1,100 suspects were arrested by Punjab Police till Sunday, with 130 cases registered against them.

However, the TLP distanced themselves from those that vandalized property, despite evidence that the rallies were instigated by the group’s leadership. So, the government’s action is limited to the foot soldiers of radical Islamist groups.

The leadership itself maintains that they are awaiting a verdict on a petition to review Asia Bibi’s acquittal. “The agreement does not mean that we have called off the protest. It simply means that we have postponed it till the final verdict on our review petition in announced,” TLP spokesman Ijaz Ashrafi said.

“If the decision is in [Asia Bibi’s] favor again, we will resume our protest till she is punished as per Islamic law. She is a blasphemer and has to be hanged,” he said.