Protests have erupted in several cities across Pakistan after police took into custody the leader of a far-right religious party known for holding mass demonstrations over the issue of “blasphemy”.
On Monday evening, several major intercity highways were closed by police as protests broke out in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi, the eastern city of Lahore, outside the capital Islamabad and in several other areas.
Local media reported clashes between police and protesters in Lahore and elsewhere.
The protests began after Saad Rizvi, leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, was arrested by police in the eastern city of Lahore on Monday, his party said.
“The central leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan Hafiz Muhammad Saad has been arrested,” said senior party leader Syed Zaheer ul Hassan Shah in a video message posted on social media.
It was unclear what charges Rizvi was being held on.
Shah alleged that the government had “violated” an agreement signed with the party in February to stave off the threat of further protests over perceived “blasphemy” by French President Emmanuel Macron.
In November, the TLP called off a sit-in protest that had blocked a major highway into the capital Islamabad over the issue of remarks by President Macron that had been considered Islamophobic.
At the time, the government signed a deal with the party wherein it promised to consider expelling the French ambassador, banning all French goods from Pakistan and guaranteeing an amnesty to all TLP protesters arrested during those demonstrations.
In February, the government signed a new agreement with the TLP after the group threatened fresh protests due to perceived inaction on the previous deal.
The new agreement promised to put the question of expelling the French ambassador to Pakistan and other issues before parliament to make a decision before April 20.
The arrest of Rizvi, who succeeded his father Khadim Hussain Rizvi as head of the TLP after the latter died of natural causes suddenly in November, appears to be a pre-emptive move ahead of the expiration of the April 20 deadline, with the issues of the deal not presented before parliament so far.
“The government has violated the agreement [with TLP] and has descended on hooliganism, in a return to its customary ways,” said TLP senior leader Shah.
“To all workers [of the party], I would like to say that wherever you are, come out onto the roads and come out on the streets and hold protest demonstrations. Everywhere where you are, I want you to jam the country.”
Founded by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP has agitated for several years over the issue of perceived blasphemy, holding mass demonstrations across the country calling for all “blasphemers” to be killed.
The party rose to further prominence after the country’s 2018 general election, when it secured the fourth-highest share of the popular vote for parliamentary seats.
The party only secured two provincial assembly seats in the southern province of Sindh in that election, but saw its candidates score higher than many more established parties in contests across the country.