Pakistan’s parliament will debate a resolution on the expulsion of the French ambassador to Islamabad over comments by the French president last year that were deemed to be “blasphemous” by a far-right religious party, the interior minister says.
The move came amid negotiations with the now-banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) after days of violent protests by the party that has seen at least four policemen killed and more than 800 wounded.
The TLP on Monday released 11 policemen abducted during a raid on a police station in the eastern city of Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.
On Tuesday, Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed said the resolution would be brought before parliament later in the day “after long negotiations” with the TLP.
“Tehreek-e-Labbaik will, in the whole country and especially from Masjid Rehmat ul Lil Alimeen [where the Lahore protests were centred], end its sit-in protests and talks and negotiations will move forward,” he said in a video message.Rasheed said legal cases against all TLP activists arrested during the recent violence would be dropped, and those TLP leaders who were listed under anti-terrorism legislation would be cleared.
‘Will this stop blasphemy?’
However, it is unclear if the resolution will pass after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday denounced the TLP’s tactics as being “damaging” to the country.
“My question is: by sending the French ambassador back and cutting all ties, will this stop [blasphemy]?” said PM Khan in a televised address to the nation. “Is there a guarantee that people will stop insulting the prophet?”
Khan called on Muslim-majority countries to band together to lobby European and other countries to criminalise the act of insulting the honour of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in the same way that some countries have banned questioning of the Holocaust genocide.
Founded in 2017, the TLP has held several major countrywide demonstrations on the issue of perceived “blasphemy”, a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where certain forms of the crime can carry a mandatory death penalty.
In 2017, a three-week TLP sit-in that blocked a major highway into the capital Islamabad successfully forced the government to change legislation that was deemed to soften language, excluding members of the Ahmadi sect in an electoral oath.
Prime Minister Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), then in the opposition, had supported the 2017 protests, and Khan has made combatting Islamophobia and perceived blasphemy against Islam’s prophet a key part of his international engagements.
In 2018, Khan’s government led a crackdown against the TLP when it repeated its protests from a year ago, this time over the issue of the acquittal of a Christian woman on blasphemy charges in a high-profile case.
Following last week’s violent protests, the Pakistani government has designated the TLP a “terrorist” organisation under anti-terrorism legislation, and says it will begin the process of de-listing the group as a political party by the Election Commission.
The TLP won more than two million votes in the 2018 general election, although those votes only translated to three provincial assembly seats in the southern province of Sindh.