Tensions ran high in the Pakistani capital Islamabad as thousands of supporters of the banned religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) held a march towards the city to force the government to release its top leader and expel the French envoy.
The group began their journey on Friday with the goal of reaching the capital to pressure the government to release Saad Rizvi, the head of the TLP while also demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in France last year.
After Rizvi’s arrest in April, violent demonstrations by TLP supporters erupted in major Pakistani cities. Six policemen were killed and more than 800 people were injured, according to official figures, in protests that lasted a week.
Protesters are marching from Lahore, Punjab province, where the TLP leadership is based.
Authorities have partially shut down the country’s capital and other major cities by blocking major roads and arteries with shipping containers after the TLP leadership on Thursday threatened to march on Islamabad and stage a sit-in until their demands were met.
“Our march has started now from Lahore to Islamabad,” Saddam Bukhari, a TLP spokesperson, told Arab News on Friday afternoon. “Thousands of people are accompanying us, and we will reach Islamabad to register our protest.”
Islamabad and adjacent Rawalpindi have already deployed heavy contingents of police at and around the Faizabad Interchange — a junction between the twin cities.
“Everything is normal so far in Islamabad,” Zia-ul-Qamar, an Islamabad police spokesperson, told Arab News. “The riot police and other law enforcement personnel are deployed in the city to maintain law and order.”
The Lahore High Court recently declared Rizvi’s detention as illegal while approving a petition filed by his uncle against his continued incarceration.
The Punjab government, however, filed an appeal against the court’s verdict, saying the bench had not considered the intent and purpose of putting the TLP leader’s name on a list of proscribed individuals and entities to ensure the maintenance of public order.
The Punjab government also said it had intelligence reports that TLP activists were planning a major protest rally in November and were waiting for Rizvi’s release.
Founded in August 2015, the TLP has made the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad central to its politics. The party has built a wide base of support in recent years, rallying around cases of blasphemy, which are punishable by death in Pakistan.
It was banned following April’s protests.
Rizvi became the leader of TLP in November last year after the death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi. (Source: Arab News)