Khan strikes agreement with blasphemy hardliners to avert violence
ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan remains fractured over the fate of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman cleared of blasphemy charges last week by the Supreme Court.
On October 31, Pakistan's top judges overturned her conviction, explaining it was based on flimsy evidence and ending Bibi's eight-year ordeal on death row.
But the decision enraged Islamist hardliners who took to the streets, blockaded major cities, engaged in violence and demanded Bibi's immediate execution.
The protests calling for Bibi's execution were spearheaded by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP), a new political party known for whipping up anger over blasphemy issues.
Last year, the TLP, which was founded in 2015, blockaded the capital of Islamabad for several weeks, demanding stricter enforcement of Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws. That protest forced the resignation of the federal law minister under the previous government.
Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation after the Supreme Court ruling on Bibi's verdict, calling for calm and vowing to confront the protesters head on.
"We will protect property and lives; we will not allow any sabotage," Khan said in a nationally televised speech.
Khan's speech drew widespread praise from his detractors, who had long accused him of courting extremists and for defending the blasphemy laws.
Khan strikes a deal
The protests over Bibi's case came to a tenuous end once Khan's administration agreed to a deal with the religious hardliners, where Bibi would remain in Pakistan as a final review of the Supreme Court's ruling takes place.
But the TLP issued a warning late Monday (November 5) saying it was prepared to take to the streets again as reports claimed that dozens of the group’s activists had been arrested.
"If you breach the agreement, then remember that the entire country will stand up against you," said TLP leader Afzal Qadri in a Facebook post.
Khan's government did not appear to have a strategy in place for following through on the promise to confront the protests, which were quickly snow-balling, say critics.
"The government seems to be directionless, and it does not seem to have a proper strategy," said political commentator Fasi Zaka. "The government has just bought time, and we're still waiting to see what it does."
"The government must act against the TLP to sustain its popularity," said security analyst Muhammad Amir Rana.
Khan's administration continued to defend the deal Monday, arguing the agreement had averted violence.
"We dispersed them in a peaceful way, which is an achievement," Federal Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said.
Bibi in legal limbo
Khan's shaky deal with the religious hardliners has left Bibi in legal limbo and her family fearing for her safety. Her husband has appealed to Britain and the United States among other countries to grant the family asylum.
Bibi's lawyer, Saif-ul-Malook, who has fled to the Netherlands, said the United Nations and the European Union pressured him to leave Pakistan because his life was in danger.
"They were of the view that I was the prime target to be killed and that my life was in imminent danger," he said Monday at a news conference at The Hague. "I am not happy to be here without her, but everybody said that you are the prime target at the moment and the whole world is taking care of Asia Bibi."