Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government

Thousands of supporters of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party left Lahore on Saturday, calling for the release of leader Saad Rizvi.

Pakistan Islamist Rally
Pakistan Islamist Rally

A radical Islamist party in Pakistan has suspended its march towards the capital, Islamabad, for three days after officials agreed to drop charges against its leader.

Thousands of supporters of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party left the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday, clashing for a second straight day with police who threw tear gas into the crowd.

They began their journey a day earlier, with the aim of reaching Islamabad to pressure the government to release Saad Rizvi, who was arrested last year amid demonstrations against France over the publication of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Pakistan Islamist Rally
Police fired tear gas at supporters of the banned radical Islamist Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party to disperse them during a protest march towards Islamabad (KM Chaudary/AP)

Provincial law minister Raja Basharat told the Associated Press that, under the agreement, Punjab will withdraw charges against Mr Rizvi and release all those detained during the protest march by Tuesday.

Mr Rizvi had been detained pre-emptively on a charge of inciting people to assemble unlawfully. It was unclear when he would be released.

Mr Basharat also said the agreement stipulates that the federal government will honour a previous agreement with the TLP to address diplomatic ties with France over the publication of the caricatures.

Sajid Saifi, a spokesman for Mr Rizvi’s party, confirmed the minister’s account and said thousands of party supporters will stay in the town of Mureedke, waiting for the release of party leaders and members who have been detained.

Pakistan Islamist Rally
Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party on the outskirts of Lahore (KM Chaudary/AP)

Pakistan Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters that the TLP’s demand that the French ambassador to Pakistan be expelled over the caricatures will be taken to a parliamentary committee in the coming days.

Mr Basharat, Mr Ahmed and Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri took part in the talks with the TLP executive council.

Violent clashes erupted between security forces and the Islamists in Lahore, killing at least two police officers and injuring about a dozen others, police said.

Mr Saifi claimed four party supporters were killed by police fire and “many” others were injured. Police said the demonstrators torched several police vehicles there.

Mr Ahmed said the government is not aware of any deaths of TLP supporters.

Mr Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on the single issue of defending the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam.

It has a history of staging violent protests to pressure the government to accept its demands.

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