Hundreds of radical Islamists poured onto the streets and blocked major roads across Pakistan as they held protests for the second day on Thursday against the acquittal of a Christian woman sentenced to death for committing blasphemy, defying Prime Minister Imran Khan’s stern warning.
The government said that negotiations were being held with the protestors to convince them to disperse peacefully.
Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi told the National Assembly that negotiations were underway with the agitators to resolve the matter amicably.
“The nation will soon hear good news in this regard. We do not want use of force against the protestors, he said.
Asia Bibi, 47, was convicted in 2010 after being accused of insulting Islam in a row with her neighbours. She always maintained her innocence, but has spent most of the past eight years in solitary confinement.
The apex court’s judgement, which was pronounced Wednesday, triggered protests across Pakistan with protestors led by Islamic political party Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan and other groups blocking major highways and roads in different parts of the country.
Afridi assured that full protection would be provided to Asia and the judges who acquitted her.
According to media some reports, the Christian woman is likely to be flown out of the country due to threat to her life. Her husband has reportedly reached Pakistan along with his family from the UK to shift her abroad.
It is not clear where she will go as several countries, including Canada, have offered asylum to her.
The timing of her release has not been shared due to security reasons. She was kept in Sheikhupura jail near Lahore.
On Wednesday, following the protests, Section 144 was imposed till November 10 across Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan barring the gathering of more than four persons in public places as well as pillion riding.
Prime Minister Khan and Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa held a meeting Wednesday night to discuss “the overall situation in the country and other important issues”.
The decision to make efforts to resolve the issue peacefully was taken in the Cabinet meeting which was chaired by Prime Minister Khan, according to information minister Fawad Chaudhry.
We want that the matter is resolved peacefully, so we are showing tolerance towards protestors, he said.
The information minister however said the state’s intent to avoid use of force to remove protesters must not be construed as a sign of weakness and none would be allowed to make a war on the state of Pakistan.
To a question about possibility of use of force against protestors, Chaudhry said consultation were being held at various levels but government’s preference was to end protests peacefully.
He also said that a delegation of government held talks with Pakistan Muslims League-Nawaz president Shehbaz Sharif and chairman of Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari the leaders of two main opposition parties to discuss the latest protests.
“The opposition leaders assured the government of support in the efforts to resolve the issue of protests, he said.
Traffic officials said major disturbance was witnessed on Thursday in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad where dozens of protestors were enforcing the blockade of major roads and burning tyres. Traffic was also suspended on major motorways due to the presence of demonstrators.
The largest province of Punjab, which was facing major protests, decided to close down schools for a day and also cancelled supplementary Secondary School Certificate examination.
Private schools in Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces also remained shut. However, educational institutions were open in Islamabad.
Hospitals were on high alert due to fear of clashes as police and paramilitary forces tried to contain the disturbance. Long queues of traffic were witnessed in Lahore, Islamabad and other cities due to blockade of several major roads. Mobile phone and internet services were also suspended in different parts of the country.
Protests were also being staged in Gujranwala, Mansehra, Faisalabad and other cities across the country.
Bibi’s case has been deeply divisive in Pakistan where there is strong support for the controversial blasphemy laws.
Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Saqib Nisar said blasphemy is not acceptable to anyone, but the judiciary cannot punish someone if there is no proof against that person.
Talking tough, Prime Minister Khan Wednesday told hardliners not to “confront the State” and refrain from vandalism.
The opposition on Thursday criticised Khan’s address to the nation.
Speaking on the floor of the National Assembly, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Khursheed Shah accused Khan of “running away” from the parliament at a time when the country is threatened by unrest, and said his body language was “aggressive” when he addressed the nation.
“Prime Minister Imran Khan should have been [here in the Parliament] today. The roads are blocked, people have been restricted to their homes, there is [violence]. He should not be running away. The prime minister and the interior minister should have been present here today, Shah said.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Saad Rafique, voicing similar views, said a ruler’s attitude should not be so aggressive and the prime minister should have taken the House into confidence over the matter.