UPDATE – Pakistan: Protests end as govt. reaches agreement


By Islamuddin Sajid and Aamir Latif

ISLAMABAD / KARACHI, Pakistan – The government on Friday reached an agreement with religious groups who had ground to a halt daily life in Pakistan through protests against acquittal of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Bibi who had been sentenced to death by a district court in November 2010 for blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad.

The religious groups agreed to call off the protest following government assurances of placing a travel ban on Bibi and no objection to a review petition against the verdict in the top court.

Earlier on Friday, a crippling strike suspended the normal course of life across the country for the third consecutive day.

Angry protesters, mainly the newly-emerged Sunni group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), blocked roads in the capital Islamabad, and other cities and towns, including Lahore, Karachi, Faisalabad, Multan, Peshawar, Quetta, Gujranwala, Gujrat, and Sialkot, suspending commercial and business activities and paralyzing traffic.

Intermittent incidents of violence, including burning of vehicles and pelting of security troops with stones were reported in some cities on social media, however, there was no confirmation of the reported violence. News channels did not cover the protests following government orders in an attempt to cool down mounting tensions.

Bibi has been kept at an undisclosed location for her safety.

Her brother James Masih told local English daily Dawn that his sister had no other option but to leave the country soon. France and Spain have already offered asylum to Bibi and her family.

Making up 3 percent of a total 210 million population, Christians are one of the two largest minorities in Muslim Pakistan.

In Pakistan, blasphemy against Islam or Prophet Muhammad is a criminal offense that can carry the death penalty. While the state has never executed anyone under the law, mere allegations have stirred mass protests and violence.

Pakistan's powerful army denied having a role in Bibi's acquittal.

The rare clarification came on Friday after some religious leaders accused army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the judges of orchestrating the acquittal.

"Aasia Bibi's case is a purely legal matter, and it should be disposed of through legal process. Dragging Pakistan army in every matter is deplorable," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said in a brief interview with state-run Pakistan Television.