ISLAMABAD -- Prime Minister Imran Khan won praise for his stance against religious hardliners Thursday (October 31), as demonstrators blocked major roads to protest the Supreme Court's overturning of a blasphemy conviction.
Khan has vowed to confront extremists who called for the assassination of the country’s Supreme Court justice and for mutiny against the army’s top brass, after the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy.
"We will protect people's properties and lives; we will not allow any sabotage," Khan said in a nationally televised address Wednesday.
Khan's speech drew praise across social media, including from those formerly critical of the prime minister.
Journalist Mosharraf Zaidi hailed a "remarkable speech", and a column in Dawn said Khan had taken "an unequivocal and strong line against religious bigotry and hatred that we have not seen taken in almost two decades".
"Prime Minister Imran Khan was admirably forthright in condemning those who believe violence is the appropriate response to a judicial verdict with which they disagree," said The News, which is often a critic of the PM.
Others, however, highlighted the prime minister's mixed record on addressing the controversy around blasphemy issues in Pakistan.
"Wish Imran Khan had delivered similar speech in the last Faizabad dharna," tweeted Bilal Haider, referring to Khan's silence during similar anti-blasphemy protests last year.
There was no indication Thursday that the authorities were preparing to clear the small pockets of protesters that continue to block major thoroughfares in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.
The demonstrations are largely led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which is known for its hardline stance on blasphemy issues.
TLP, founded in 2015, blockaded Islamabad for several weeks last year to call for stricter enforcement of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws.
That protest forced the resignation of the federal law minister and paved the way for the group to poll more than 2.23 million votes in the July 25 general election, in what analysts called a "surprisingly" rapid rise. However, the party won only two seats in the Sindh provincial assembly and none in the National Assembly.
The party's chief, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has vowed to "wipe Holland off the face of the earth" over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad if TLP gains power in the nuclear-armed country.
Meanwhile, after saving Bibi from the gallows, her lawyer says he is facing the wrath of Islamist extremists -- and wonders who will save him.
But defying the threats against him, Saif-ul-Mulook says he regrets nothing and will continue his legal fight against intolerance.
Mulook's latest victory saw the freeing of Bibi -- a Christian woman convicted of blasphemy who spent nearly a decade on death row -- after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction Wednesday (October 30).
"The verdict has shown that the poor, the minorities and the lowest segments of society can get justice in this country despite its shortcomings," he told AFP immediately after the verdict.
"This is the biggest and happiest day of my life."
Mulook said he feels like a sitting duck with no security or escape plan.
"I think I have absolutely no safety. No security, and I am the easiest target... anybody can kill me," he said.
The defence of Bibi was just the latest in a long line of controversial cases taken up by the barrister.
In 2011, Mulook was the lead prosecutor of Mumtaz Qadri over the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer -- a prominent critic of the country’s blasphemy laws and supporter of Bibi.
Qadri -- one of Taseer's bodyguards -- gunned down his boss in broad daylight, citing the governor's calls for reform of the blasphemy laws as his motive.
Mulook said he took on the case as others, fearing reprisals from extremists, cowered.
His prosecution resulted in the conviction and 2016 execution of Qadri. Islamists feted the assassin and honoured him with a shrine on the outskirts of Islamabad.