The Supreme Court on Wednesday, October 31, acquitted and ordered the immediate release of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 over blasphemy charges. Upon release of the verdict, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) Islamist political party subsequently called its supporters to civil disobedience and to take to the streets nationwide. They have openly threatened to kill the Supreme Court judges.
As of 14:00 (local time), well-attended gatherings were taking place throughout the country. In the capital Islamabad and the adjacent city of Rawalpindi, protests were being held at the Faizabad Interchange and along the Aabpara and Kashmir highways, blocking traffic. The so-called “red zone” - the area housing high-profile government buildings including the Supreme Court - has been sealed off due to security concerns; paramilitary troops have been deployed to secure the Supreme Court building and prevent protesters from accessing it.
In Lahore (Punjab province), protests were being staged at Charing Cross, in the Data Darbar area, on Mall Road, and at the Punjab Assembly Hall. This is despite a province-wide ban on all gatherings in effect from October 31 to November 10 due to security concerns. Violent dispersals of individuals who defy the ban can be expected.
In Karachi (Sindh province), sit-in protests were taking place at the ICI Bridge, on Hub River Road, in the Sohrab Goth area, and at strategic intersections, blocking traffic; the burning of tires to create roadblocks has also been reported. Several parts of the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway have been blocked by protesters.
Continued mass protests and subsequent road travel disruptions (and likely violence) are expected to continue to take place in the coming days in these and other cities. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) political party is also calling for nationwide protests to take place on November 2. The authorities may seek to disrupt phone and internet communications should the situation continue to escalate.
The TLP had publicly warned the government and judiciary against overturning Bibi's death sentence, threatening to stage massive protests should the death penalty not be upheld.
The TLP was founded in 2015 and has increasingly been gaining popular support, as demonstrated by the results of the July 2018 general elections. Protests held by the TLP in 2017 demanding the stricter enforcement of blasphemy laws led to a blockade on Islamabad, which lasted for three weeks and resulted in the resignation of the federal law minister. It is not unlikely that similar scenarios occur in the coming days as protests grow.
Individuals in Pakistan are advised to closely monitor developments, minimize nonessential movements, be prepared to shelter in place, avoid all demonstrations due to the risk of violence, and refrain from discussing sensitive religious and political topics in public.
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