Pakistani government officials reportedly withdrew arrest warrants for members of the radical Islamist Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party involved in violent riots calling for the death of Christian woman Asia Bibi last week, blaming “opposition” parties instead of the TLP for the mobs.
Asia Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan, last week after spending eight years on death row. In response, the TLP organized thousands-strong violent mobs in Pakistan’s major cities, forcing schools and businesses to shut down and destroying public and private property.
Bibi has reportedly left prison but the government has kept her in an undisclosed location to protect her from the mobs who want her and the Supreme Court justices who acquitted her killed. Her family is seeking asylum in the West, arguing that radical Muslim groups will not permit her to have a normal life in the country.
The largest riots ended on Friday after the government announced a deal with the TLP to accept yet another appeal on the Bibi case, over the heads of the Supreme Court, and begin the process to ban her from leaving the country. In exchange, TLP leadership needed only to apologize for blocking roads.
The ruling Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) relied heavily on support from Islamist groups to take power in this year’s election, leading some to suspect that the government will not act to punish violent acts and rhetoric.
On Thursday evening, Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi issued remarks blaming not the TLP, which publicly organized mass riots last week, for the violence. Instead, Afridi said that members of the main opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) were in part responsible, according to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn.
Afridi told the Pakistani Senate that the TLP had claimed not to have any involvement in property destruction.
“We showed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) the footage of the people being violent on the streets and they disowned them,” he asserted. He added that TLP leaders had “apologized” for insults against the ruling government and “chided those criticizing the TLP leaders for using derogatory language against the judiciary, military and govern.”
Afridi added that the major reason for Pakistan refusing to punish TLP leaders was a financial one, asking, “God forbid, if Pakistan is placed on the [Financial Action Task Force] FATF blacklist on the grounds of the violence footage and the speeches made in parliament, who will be responsible?”
The FATF list of “Non-Cooperative Countries or Territories” identifies countries that do not sufficiently protect against money laundering or terrorist financing and serves as motivation for global industries to stay out of those areas. Pakistan is listed as a “monitored jurisdiction” but not yet on the red “call for action” list.
The attack on other opposition parties not associated with the TLP, and the PML-N in particular, followed favorable remarks on the parties by Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry on Monday. “[The opposition parties] told the world that Pakistan is united,” he had said, attacking the protesters directly.
“The way they (protesters) pulled rickshaw drivers out [of their vehicles] and set fire to their rickshaws, mistreated women by dragging them out of their cars and setting the cars alight [shows] that they don’t have any moral values,” he asserted. “They wear the garb of religion, but they have no connection to religion.”
That same day, however, members of the PTI and socialist Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Congress attacked each other physically over the TLP deal. The altercation was preceded by members of the PML-N complaining that the TLP deal was too favorable to the Islamists, while PTI government officials noted that the PML-N similarly signed deals with the TLP to get the group to stop disrupting public life with riots while the party was in power.
On Friday, Dawn reported that 19 TLP members with warrants to their names were suddenly free of any criminal charges in Islamabad. The newspaper did not note whether the government provided any information on why these individuals would no longer face arrest despite participating in the riots.
The TLP has threatened further riots if Bibi is allowed to flee the country. Pakistani officials on Thursday and Friday insisted that she remained in the country, but not in prison.
Bibi was arrested in 2009 after two co-workers accused her of insulting Muhammad during a disagreement over whether she, as a Christian, could drink out of a cup that the Muslim co-workers wanted to use. Bibi has consistently denied that she said anything about Muhammad or Islam during their altercation. The Supreme Court found last week that the accusers had not provided any verifiable evidence against Bibi and ruled that she be immediately released.