Pakistan police arrest 160 supporters of governor's assassin

Arrested men were celebrating the assassination of former provincial governor Salman Taseer, who had called for Pakistan's tough blasphemy laws to be reformed. Blasphemy case filed against Taseer's son after he called for reviewing the laws.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

A Pakistan policeman (R) detains a demonstrator participating in a rally to celebrate the assassination of provincial governor Salman Taseer in Lahore on January 4, 2017.

Pakistan police arrested 160 people on Wednesday at a rally to celebrate the assassination of a liberal provincial governor who called for the country's tough blasphemy laws to be reformed. 

Salman Taseer was gunned down in Islamabad by his own security guard Mumtaz Qadri on January 4, 2011 after he spoke out for Asia Bibi — a Christian mother on death row over blasphemy allegations.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, and anyone even accused of insulting Islam risks a violent and bloody death at the hands of vigilantes. 

Qadri was hanged last year in a step which brought hardliners onto the streets supporting the convicted murderer and demanding Bibi be killed.

Local media reported that the arrests in Lahore had sparked protests by the religious groups in the country's largest city Karachi as well.

Security was tight in the eastern city of Lahore throughout the day. Police barricaded many parts of Lahore to prevent demonstrators from gathering, causing massive traffic jams.

Activists of Jamaat-e Ahl-e Sunnat Pakistan and Sunni Tehreek hold a joint rally against the war in Syria and to celebrate the assassination of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, in Lahore, Pakistan on January 4, 2017. (AFP)

Police said around 300 activists attended two separate rallies in Lahore on Wednesday blocking main roads, under the banner of "Save Islam Movement" and "Lubaik Ya Rasool Allah movement" — referring to the collective name of some hardline religious groups.

"We have arrested some 160 people who clashed with police," senior police official Haider Ashraf said.

Another police official said clashes erupted when barricades were placed on roads to prevent the rally from reaching Lahore's Liberty Market area, where Taseer's supporters were to hold a candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of his assassination.

Members of the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies gather around portraits of assassinated provincial governor Salman Taseer in Lahore on January 4, 2017, during a ceremony marking his death anniversary. (AFP)

Last week hardliners also filed blasphemy charges against Taseer's son, Shaan Taseer, and issued a fatwa (edict) calling for his death after he posted a Christmas video on his Facebook page calling for a review of the blasphemy law and supporting Bibi.

Police declined to comment, and a copy of the police report on the complaint did not mention Shaan Taseer by name. The police report did reference the Christmas message and opened an investigation under the blasphemy laws' Section 295-A, which bans hate speech against any religion.

Mohammad Zulfiqar, an organiser of Lubaik Ya Rasool Allah movement, criticised Wednesday's arrests.

"The purpose was to defend Islam and express solidarity with Muslims in Kashmir and Burma (Myanmar)," he said of the rallies. "We also held them to celebrate the assassination (of Taseer)."

The police case highlights the continuing influence in Pakistan of Muslim hardliners who praise violence in the name of defending Islam, despite a government vow to crack down on religious extremism.

Shaan Taseer said on Monday that he had received "very credible death threats" from supporters of the hardline Muslim philosophy that inspired his father's killer, bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri.

"They are sending me Mumtaz Qadri's photos with messages that there are several Mumtaz Qadris waiting for me," he said late on Monday.

However, Sunni Tehreek has threatened mass street protests unless the younger Taseer is charged under Section 295-C - blasphemy against Islam or the Prophet Mohammad.

Sunni Tehreek figure Mujahid Abdur Rasool told Reuters the group was in negotiations with the government over the case.

He said Sunni Tehreek was not calling for Taseer's murder, only his prosecution and eventual execution. Pakistan's government had placed the Sunni Tehreek under its watch list in January 2007, during the rule of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan had ruled in October 2015 that calling for reforms in the country's blasphemy laws and criticising them did not constitute blasphemy. 

Punjab government officials could not be reached for comment. The Government of Pakistan has also remained tight-lipped about the issue.

More than 200 people in Pakistan were charged under blasphemy laws in 2015 - many of them minorities such as Christians, who make up 1 percent of the population.

Critics say the laws are often used to settle personal scores, and pressure for convictions is often applied on police and courts from religious groups and lawyers dedicated to pushing the harshest blasphemy punishments.

At least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to figures from a Center for Research and Security Studies report and local media.

TRTWorld and agencies