The Lahore High Court has ordered the release on bail of a hardline cleric who paralyzed Pakistan last year by orchestrating violent protests against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, his organization said on Tuesday.
The decision to free Khadim Hussain Rizvi came days after Bibi left Pakistan following eight years on death row in a case that spotlighted religious extremism in the Muslim-majority country. She has reportedly been reunited with her family in Canada.
“Today the Lahore High Court granted bail to Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi,” Pir Ijaz Ashrafi, a spokesman for Rizvi’s group Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), said in a video message posted on Twitter. A Lahore High Court official confirmed to AFP that the court had granted Rizvi bail, and said he was expected to be released late Tuesday.
Rizvi was detained in November last year after police launched a crackdown on hundreds of his supporters in Punjab province and Sindh capital Karachi. He had been charged with terrorism and sedition offenses by Islamabad after he led violent protests to oppose the Supreme Court’s decision on Oct. 31 to finally overturn Bibi’s conviction and death sentence.
Demonstrators blocked major roads in protest, burning cars and buses, leaving large swathes of the country paralyzed as they called for her execution. The group also called for mutiny in the armed forces and assassination of the country’s top judges for acquitting her.
The government managed to defuse tensions by striking a deal that allowed another review of Bibi’s case, but when Labaik threatened to launch another protest some weeks later Rizvi and other leaders were taken into custody as part of a crackdown. They have been in detention since.
Bibi has technically been a free woman since the review of her case—also conducted by the Supreme Court—was dismissed in January. It is believed that she was held in protective custody while awaiting an asylum deal before she finally fled Pakistan less than a week ago. The U.S. has said she has been reunited with her family.
Blasphemy is a hugely inflammatory issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet can lead to lynchings and murders.
Bibi’s conviction stemmed from an incident in 2009 when she argued with Muslim laborers working alongside her. She consistently denied the charges, and her case rallied international rights groups, politicians and religious figures. She spent eight years on death row before the Supreme Court decision to free her.