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Pakistan

Anti-blasphemy party refuses to end Islamabad blockade

Talks with Pakistani government fail, after protesters demand removal of law minister over blasphemy laws

ucanews.com reporter, Islamabad   

ucanews.com reporter, Islamabad   

Updated: November 23, 2017 05:21 AM GMT
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Anti-blasphemy party refuses to end Islamabad blockade

Residents of Islamabad walk along a major highway blocked by activists of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan who are protesting against what they says is a watering down of the country's blasphemy laws. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP)

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A Pakistani Islamist party renowned for its strong support of draconian blasphemy laws, has continued its blockade of one of the main roads to the capital Islamabad as talks with the government remain stalled.

Hundreds of supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a new political wing of the hardline Sunni sect, have been camping out in Islamabad to demand the removal of the law minister who they accuse of watering down blasphemy laws. The protesters, whose numbers have sometimes swelled to 2,000, have blocked a major highway with buses, cars and concrete construction pipes.

The Pakistani government on Nov. 14 invited representatives of the protesting group for talks in a bid to end the seven-day blockade.

Sardar Muhammad Yousaf, the federal religious minister, told a press conference that the finality of the prophet "cannot be compromised on" and said the "error" had been rectified.

The controversy started in October, after the government introduced changes to electoral laws. A change in the wording of an oath for lawmakers that dealt with a declaration of Prophet Muhammad as God's final prophet set off the furor.

"We have already rectified the error in the nomination paper for election and now there is no justification to continue the sit-in, which is causing great inconvenience and hardship to people of the twin cities," Yousaf said.

State Minister for the Interior, Talal Chaudhry, said that 12 demands issued by the protesters were illegal and unconstitutional and could not be fulfilled.

"The government doesn't want to use force against a few hundred protesters but it cannot allow them to prolong the sit-in any more. The issue has to be resolved to end the week-long misery of commuters," he said.

The protesters, however, were unfazed by the government's threat of force. 

"We are prepared for any crackdown or use of force from the government. We will go to any length to protect the sanctity of the Holy Prophet," Hafiz Saad, a spokesman of the TLP, told ucanews.com.

"Talks can begin only after the government sacks Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid and releases all our arrested workers."

"One of our main demands is to get assurance that blasphemy laws will remain untouched."

After earlier admitting it was a "clerical error," the government summoned a parliamentary session to restore the original clause.

Ignoring the government's explanation, hundreds of TLP's supporters marched from Lahore to Islamabad and set up a protest camp at Faizabad Interchange, which connects Islamabad to Rawalpindi and other cities.

According to local media reports, the Islamabad High Court Nov. 16 ordered the TLP to end its protest.

In Pakistan, blasphemy laws carry penalties ranging from life in prison to capital punishment.

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, over 1,300 people have been accused of blasphemy since 1987.  Among them is Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of five, who was handed a death sentence for blasphemy. Bibi insists she was targeted for drinking water from a cup meant for Muslims.

Human rights campaigners insist that blasphemy law is often used to target minorities or settle personal feuds.

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