Information minister says government will only release workers booked under MPO, while those arrested on murder, terror charges will need to seek court relief
The banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) on Tuesday ended its sit-in outside the Masjid Rehmatulil Alameen in Lahore, as a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf lawmaker tabled in the National Assembly a resolution to debate the expulsion of the French ambassador over the re-publication of blasphemous caricatures in France last year.
The TLP sit-in at Lahore’s Yateem Khana Chowk was launched on April 12 after the Punjab government arrested the banned group’s chief, Saad Rizvi. While the arrest had initially provoked nationwide protests, all blocked roads had been cleared by law enforcement authorities apart from the Lahore location, resulting in a violent clash between police and TLP workers last Sunday.
In a video statement, TLP leaders said that with the presentation of the resolution in the National Assembly, they were ending all ongoing calls for protest. They also appealed to their workers to remain peaceful and ignore any rumors about the deal between the government and the TLP. “The TLP leadership is in negotiations with the government and progress is being made on all the issues,” they said. Early on Tuesday, Interior Minister had announced that in addition to the parliamentary debate, the deal inked with the TLP also called for the release of arrested workers and the withdrawal of cases registered under the Fourth Schedule.
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry confirmed the deal inked between the government and the banned group called for an end to the protest in exchange for a parliamentary debate on whether or not the French envoy should be expelled from Pakistan. He also clarified, in various media appearances, that the deal announced by the interior minister had been “incomplete.”
According to Chaudhry, the TLP would have to approach court if it wanted the ban imposed on it by the government to be lifted. Additionally, he said, the government would only release people arrested under Maintenance of Public Order statutes, but anyone booked under murder or terror charges would have to seek relief from court. He also clarified that TLP chief Saad Rizvi was not being released, rebutting rumors to the contrary.
During an emergency session of the National Assembly on Tuesday, the ruling PTI presented a resolution to debate the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan over blasphemous caricatures. Presented as a private member bill by PTI lawmaker Amjad Ali Khan, the resolution condemns the publication of blasphemous caricatures by French magazine Charlie Hebdo; and regrets French President Emmanuel Macron’s defense of the same, saying it hurt the sentiments of Muslims globally.
According to the resolution, the bill also calls for efforts to inform European countries about the “gravity” of blasphemy and to unite all Muslim countries on a single platform to resist this at all international forums. “This House also demands that the state should decide matters of international relations and no person, group or party exert unnecessary illegal pressure in this regard,” it read, in a clear reference to the demands of the TLP.
The resolution says all provincial governments should designate specific sites for protests to prevent any disruption in the lives of citizens, and has sought the formation of a special committee to deliberate on the matter.
The proceedings turned contentious almost immediately, as lawmakers of the opposition PMLN and the PTI clashed over the resolution’s text. Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said all Muslims were united on the protection of the sanctity of Islam’s Prophet, and the finality of prophet-hood. “A unanimous resolution should have been tabled in the House and the government should have taken the opposition on board regarding the session,” he said, and sought additional time to study the resolution before its passage.
In response, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan claimed the contents of the resolution had been approved by the banned TLP, and had been presented as-in to Parliament. “The government desired a debate on the issue. However, as the resolution is based on the exact discussions held between the government and the TLP, and as it is moved by a private member, therefore the government does not plan to make changes to it,” he said, adding that if the House wished to amend the resolution, the government was amenable to it.
The Pakistan Peoples Party boycotted the session, with Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari saying it was a mess of the PTI’s making and it should clean it up on its own. “Agreement wasn’t brought to National Assembly, government took action on streets, then banned [TLP], people killed, over 500 policemen injured, closed Internet, P.M. didn’t make statement in National Assembly, didn’t take National Assembly into confidence at any stage,” he wrote in a posting on Twitter. “Now PTI wants to hide behind NA. It’s your mess P.M., clean up or go home,” he added.
The TLP, last year, demanded the French ambassador to Pakistan be expelled after French President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish blasphemous caricatures of Islam’s Prophet. The government, at the time, signed a deal promising to bring to Parliament—within three months—a resolution on the envoy’s expulsion. At the end of that deadline, the TLP protested once again, at which point the government sought further time to implement the initial accord.
A week before the expiry of that deadline, Rizvi issued a video statement calling on his supporters to prepare for a long march, prompting the government to place him under arrest. This provoked nationwide protests that often turned violent, resulting in hundreds of policemen, protesters and passersby being injured, and at least four policemen killed. In a nationally-televised speech, the prime minister had assured the TLP that his government and the banned group’s “goals are the same, just our methods are different.” He had also warned that expelling the French envoy would only harm Pakistan, as it would prompt retaliation from the European Union and hurt the country’s exports industry.