Pak on the boil over acquittal, Asia Bibi to be flown out

Radical Islamists burnt tyres and blocked major roads as they held protests across Pakistan 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.

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 on 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. Prime Minister Khan and Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa held a meeting on Wednesday night to discuss “the overall situation in the country and other important issues”, according to Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry.

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. 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.

There was no official word on the plan to clear the protesters but security sources said all options were being considered.

“We are ready to take action and restore the writ of the state,” a senior police official told PTI.

The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) advised passengers to report at least four hours prior to their flight departure as roads have been blocked in major cities across the country. Protests were also being staged in Gujranwala, Mansehra, Faisalabad and other cities.

Meanwhile, Bibi’s husband Ashiq Masih has reached Pakistan along with his family from the UK to shift her abroad, The News reported quoting sources. Masih was provided complete security by the law enforcement agencies, it said. Officials also said Bibi might be flown out of Pakistan due to threat to her life. However, it was not clear where she will go as several countries, including Canada, have offered her asylum. The timing of her release was not been shared due to security reasons. She was kept in Sheikhupura jail near Lahore.

Talking tough, Prime Minister Khan on 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 People’s Party (PPP) leader Khursheed Shah  said, “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 PM and the interior minister should have been present here today.”

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. “The religion card that you used against [the previous government] in the past, is now being used against you,” Rafique said, adding, “You used to talk of lockdowns and blocking roads. Now it’s being said that blocking the roads is not in the interests of the nation.”

Imran Khan however, won praise for his stance against religious hardliners.  While several newspapers hailed his “remarkable speech” and his strong line against religious bigotry and hatred, others highlighted the PM’s mixed record on addressing blasphemy issues in Pakistan.