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Blasphemy laws will not be amended, Pakistani government promises protesters

7 April 2016

A four-day sit-in in Islamabad attended by thousands of Muslim extremists dispersed last Wednesday night (30 March) after the government assured them that the country’s “blasphemy laws” will not be amended.

The protesters, who were agitating against the execution of an assassin of a blasphemy law reform advocate and calling for the implementation of a string of pro-Islamist demands, told an Al Jazeera reporter that it was a victory for them and that they had put the Pakistan blasphemy law back on the national agenda.

Led by two Islamic organisations, the demonstrators overran a security zone in Pakistan's capital, saying that they would not leave until their demands had been met. Their demands included that Christian mother Aasia Bibi, sentenced to death in November 2010 for blasphemy, should be executed immediately and that sharia should be implemented throughout the country.

Analysts have noted that it is not insignificant that the start of their protests coincided with the Christian-targeted Easter Day bombing in Lahore, which killed at least 74 and injured over 370.

The rally kicked off on Easter Day (27 March) in the neighbouring city of Rawalpindi at a religious observance where at least 25,000 gathered to commemorate the death of Mumtaz Qadri, a police guard who killed a politician for advocating a liberalising of the blasphemy law. The leaders of the Sunni Tehreek (ST) and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool (SAW) groups called on participants to march towards Islamabad.

More than 10,000 protesters then made their way into the federal capital, creating havoc along their route by clashing with the police, torching a bus station and vehicles, and damaging private and public property. 

The protests paralysed one of the busiest areas of Islamabad while mobile phone networks and bus services were suspended. Government-ordered media black-outs meant that that the protests were almost entirely ignored by national media.

A protestor, Mazhar Iqbal, told Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, “We came here because we want to atone for our sins and prepare for the afterlife. We will not go back unless our demands are met.”

The demands included the unconditional release of all Sunni clerics and leaders booked on various charges, including terrorism and murder; the recognition of Mumtaz Qadri as a martyr and the conversion of his Adiala Jail cell into a national heritage site; assurances that the blasphemy laws will not be amended; and the removal of Ahmadiyyas and non-Muslims who had occupied key posts. Official recognition as an Islamic martyr would be considered a guarantee of a place in paradise.

Mumtaz Qadri was executed on 29 February for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer. Qadri was working as a bodyguard for the moderate governor when he shot the man he was supposed to be protecting 28 times in broad daylight in Islamabad on 4 January 2011.

Taseer had defended Aasia Bibi who was sentenced to death for defiling the name of Muhammad following an argument between Aasia and fellow women field-labourers which started when they refused to drink water that she had fetched because she was a Christian.

Blasphemy laws, which impose a mandatory death penalty for some types of “blasphemy”, are often misused to settle personal grudges. Christians are particularly vulnerable to false accusation by Muslims, and accusations can trigger mob violence and lynchings.