Crackdown on hardliners as Pakistan detains blasphemy protest cleric
Pakistani police on Saturday arrested hundreds of supporters of a hardline cleric whose party recently paralysed the country with violent protests over the acquittal of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
Hours after firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi was detained late on Friday, police launched a crackdown against supporters of the Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party in Punjab province and the port city of Karachi.
Following the arrest of the cleric and members of the TLP leadership there had been calls for protests ahead of a scheduled party rally on Sunday in Islamabad.
More than a hundred supporters were detained in Karachi on Friday night when protesters blocked off a road and clashed with police after the arrest of their leader, senior police official Ghulam Azfar Mahesar told journalists.
Punjab Information Minister Fayyaz ul Hassan Chohan told journalists that arrests continued in various parts of the province throughout Saturday. "I cannot give you an exact figure as we have not compiled the data yet but around four to five hundred arrests have been made in Punjab," he said.
Separately, the Punjab government issued a statement on Twitter saying its chief minister was monitoring the situation.
The country's information minister Fawad Chaudhry said the detention of Rizvi "has nothing to do with (the) Asia Bibi case," referring to the Christian woman who was on death row for eight years before the Supreme Court overturned her blasphemy conviction last month.
The court's decision sparked furious demonstrations led by the hardline TLP, with protesters calling for Bibi's execution and blocking major roads, leaving large swathes of the country paralysed.
In response, the government made a deal with the Islamists to impose a travel ban on Bibi, who was released from jail earlier this month and awaits the outcome of a final review of her case. The TLP has vowed to return to the streets if she is allowed to leave the country.
Early on Saturday clashes broke out in Karachi between Pakistani paramilitary forces and protesters over Rizvi's arrest.
National information minister Chaudhry tweeted that police had detained Rizvi "to safeguard public life, property and order".
"Law shall take its course and it cannot be left to individuals," he added.
A notification issued by the Punjab government said the cleric would be held for 30 days. The notification said there was "credible" information that the cleric would create unrest.
Blasphemy is a hugely inflammatory issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and Prophet Muhammad can lead to lynchings and murders.
Bibi's conviction stemmed from a 2009 incident when she was asked to fetch water while out working in the fields. Muslim women labourers objected to her touching the water bowl as a non-Muslim and a fight reportedly erupted.
A local imam then claimed Bibi insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Bibi has consistently denied the charges and her prosecution rallied international rights groups, politicians and religious figures. (AFP)