New furor over Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws

Demonstrations broke out across the country, forcing the government to call in the army to restore order
New furor over Pakistan's anti-blasphemy laws

Pakistani activists from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan religious group chant religious slogans during a protest in Islamabad on Nov. 21. (Photo by AFP) reporter, Karachi
November 28, 2017
Pakistani Islamist groups have ended a long protest in the capital, Islamabad, following the resignation of a government minister.

"Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid has voluntarily resigned from his post to steer the country out of a crisis," state-run Pakistan Television reported.

The resignation came hours after a failed operation by security agencies to clear a key intersection in Islamabad occupied by supporters of radical Islamic groups that champion draconian anti-blasphemy laws.

At least six people were killed and scores were injured after Islamist protesters clashed with law enforcement agencies in Islamabad, Karachi and other cities on Nov. 25 morning. 

Pakistan’s media watchdog ordered all news channels be taken off the air while social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were shut down.

Following Islamabad’s failed protest clearance operation, demonstrations broke out across Pakistan, forcing the government to call in the army to restore order.

Pakistan’s powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa advised Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to avoid the use of further force.

According to a six-point agreement, which was circulated on social media, key Islamic militant group Tehreek-e-Labaik said the protest was primarily against any legal changes weakening anti-blasphemy laws.

Blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad carries a mandatory death sentence in Pakistan. The state has not carried out any execution for this, but a number of people accused of blasphemy have been killed, some in prison or before trials ended. Blasphemy against the Qur'an is punishable with life imprisonment.

Church leaders have long charged the laws are abused for personal gain and that religious extremists are furthering their agenda by abusing the blasphemy laws. 

Law Minister Hamid had been blamed for a constitutional amendment, later withdrawn, that would have allowed members of the Ahmadiyya sect to vote as Muslims.

The sect has been accused by mainstream Muslims of not recognizing Muhammad as the final Prophet.

In a televised press conference, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a radical cleric and protest leader, formally announced the end of the agitation.

Containers were removed and roads opened to traffic.

According to human rights campaigners, the agreement is a major blow to their struggle for reform of anti-blasphemy laws that are frequently used to target religious minorities.

Rasool Baksh Raees, a noted political analyst and author of several books, believes that whatever gains Pakistan was able to achieve under a "National Action Plan" against extremism have been reversed by the latest developments.

"I don’t see any change taking place in blasphemy laws in the near future after what has happened in Islamabad," he said.

Raees said that the protest could be a conspiracy to pressure the military to topple the civilian government so that ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could revive his politics political fortunes.

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