Muslim radicals ended a four-day sit-in in a high-security “red zone” near Pakistan’s federal parliament, claiming victory after the government late Wednesday gave assurances it will not seek to amend the country’s notorious blasphemy laws or show leniency to anyone convicted under them.
The government’s pledge to the protestors came just days after a deadly Easter Sunday bombing in Pakistan’s second-biggest city underlined anew the threats faced by minority Christians both from terrorists and from Islamist extremists like those at the sit-in in the capital.
The protestors, estimated at 25,000-strong at the peak of their demonstration, are supporters of a police officer executed a month ago for the 2011 murder of a provincial governor he was paid to protect. Bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri became a hero to many fundamentalist Muslims after killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer, whom he had accused of blasphemy.
During the sit-in some protestors, members of radical Sunni groups known for their zeal for Mohammed and the Qur’an, clashed with police and set fire to buses and bus shelters.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had ordered that the protest be brought to an end, peacefully, by Wednesday. Pakistani media reported that protest leaders declared victory after talks with government officials netted them several of their listed demands.
They included an assurance that no amendments will be made to provision 295-C of the penal code, which states that “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.”
According to the private television network Geo News, Daily Times and other outlets, the government also promised that no-one convicted under the blasphemy laws will be spared.
The government agreed further to release hundreds of people arrested during the sit-in who do not stand accused of attacking property or personnel, and in response to demands that shari’a be imposed across Pakistan agreed that clerics would submit proposals on the matter to the religious affairs ministry.
Government ministers portrayed the various points as an “understanding,” saying no written agreement was signed with protest leaders. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan declared that no future protests would be allowed in the capital’s “red zone.”
On two of the protestors’ demands, the government gave no assurances: They had called for Qadri to be publicly declared a “martyr,” and for the execution of Asia Bibi, the first Christian woman in Pakistan to be sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Asia Bibi, a mother of five, has been on death row since her conviction in 2010 for “blaspheming” Mohammed. Qadri murdered Taseer after the governor, a liberal Muslim, came out in support of Asia Bibi and called for her pardon.
How much of a concession the government has made to the protestors by pledging not to touch the blasphemy laws is debatable, since there has been no significant attempt to amend or annul them for years.
The last tentative effort to amend the blasphemy laws, by a lawmaker in the then-ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was dropped just weeks after Taseer’s assassination after its sponsor, who had received death threats, failed to receive the support of her own party.
Religious freedom advocates say Christians and other minorities have long been disproportionately targeted under the blasphemy laws, which at times have also been used as a pretext in instances of personal grudges or business disputes.
Individuals accused of blasphemy have frequently been attacked by mobs, and vigilantes claiming to be protecting the honor of the prophet have taken the law into their own hands.
Among many killed in such circumstances was a High Court judge, shot to death in his Lahore chambers in 1997 after acquitting a man who had been convicted of blasphemy by a lower court; a minority Ahmadi lawyer, shot dead in 2014 after agreeing to represent a university lecturer facing blasphemy charges; and a Christian couple, accused by a mob of blasphemy and burned alive in a brick kiln, also in 2014.
On Sunday more than 70 people, many of them women and children, were killed in a suicide bombing at a public part in Lahore. Claiming responsibility for the attack, a Pakistan Taliban offshoot made it clear the target was Christians celebrating Easter.
Earlier this week Xavier William, head of a Pakistani Christian human rights advocacy group, Life For All, responded to queries about both the Easter Sunday bombing and the Islamabad sit-in.
“Religious intolerance, sectarian violence and blatant terrorism is destroying the very core of our social fabric,” William said.
“In a plural Islamic society, which is what we must aspire and strive to become, there is no place for intolerance, violence and appeasement of extremist groups who are trying to make our nation hostage to their obscurantist ideology.”
Human Rights Focus Pakistan president Naveed Walter accused the government of having “no long-term strategy to eliminate terrorism from the society,” citing both its response to terrorist threats against Christians, and the sit-in in Islamabad in support of Qadri – whose execution, Walter said, “also increased hatred against the Christian community.”