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TLP Extremists Who Sparked Asia Bibi Riots Sentenced to 55 Years in Prison

FILE - In this Feb. 4, 2019 file photo, supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a Pakistani religious group, surround an armored police armored car carrying their leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, as he arrives to a court in Lahore, Pakistan. A Pakistani court has sentenced 86 members of the radical Islamist party to 55-year prison terms each for taking part in violent rallies in 2018 over the acquittal of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case, a party official said Friday.(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary, File)

In 2018, when the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Asia Bibi of the charges of blasphemy against her and overturned her death sentence, massive riots led by the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) party paralyzed the cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi by blocking a major road. The riots even turned violent. Now after a year-long trial, some those responsible for the riots, some 86 members of the TLP, have been sentenced to a 55-year prison sentence.

“We will challenge the verdicts,” Ameer Hussain Rizvi (brother of Khadim Hussain Rizvi—head of the TLP) told reporters.

The decision was announced Thursday night in an anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Rawalpindi.

In addition to the prison time, the convicted are required to pay a collective sum of Rs 12,925,000. The court also ordered authorities to seize their moveable and immoveable assets.

TLP Leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi Trial Pending

The leader of the group, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, was arrested after the 2018 riots under terrorism and sedition charges. However, in May 2019 Rizvi was freed on bail due to medical reasons. In December 2019, Rizvi was indicted for those charges, but a date for the final ruling has not been set yet. 

According to The Hindu, the 86 TLP members were charged with damaging public property, beating people up, and disrupting normal life by staging sit-ins. The 55-year sentence is seen as harsh, although it is unlikely those convicted will serve the full time. “Imprisonments given by judges of more than 25 years are mostly symbolic,” prominent Pakistani lawyer A.K. Dogar told The Hindu. “The convicted person only spends a maximum 25 years in prison.”

Immediately following the Supreme Court’s announcement in 2018, an angry mob of Islamist extremists blocked the major road from Islamabad to Rawalpindi. They burned tires and threatened anyone associated with Bibi, including the judges who had ruled in her favor. In response, the government shut down the cellular phone networks in a couple major cities, hoping to deter the protests.

The Pakistani government negotiated with the TLP, allowing the court’s decision to be appealed and placing a travel ban on Bibi. Over the course of six months, Bibi’s case and life was held in limbo. The court eventually decided to stand behind their initial acquittal decision, but Bibi still couldn’t leave the country. In light of the massive protests against her acquittal and the TLP’s call for her beheading, Bibi was kept in hiding for several months. Numerous nations, including Canada, Spain, and France offered her asylum. Finally, in May, Bibi’s lawyer, Saif Ul Malook, announced that Bibi had joined her family in Canada

Bibi and her family were not the only ones in danger and harmed by the case of blasphemy against her. Her supporters were also threatened. Bibi’s lawyer fled to the Netherlands after the Supreme Court decision. He traveled back to Pakistan to defend Bibi a second time when the appeal case took place in January 2019. 

Two of Bibi’s supporters even lost their lives. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was assassinated after saying he would fight for Bibi’s acquittal and release. Taseer was shot by one of his bodyguards in 2011. Rizvi praised the bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri  and referred to him as a martyr in his sermons (Qadri was executed in 2016 for the murder). A shrine in Islamabad was erected by hardline, extremist Muslims in his honor. Additionally, Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian himself, was murdered after he indicated he would work to reform the blasphemy laws.

The Pakistani Government’s Tenuous Relationship With the TLP

Bibi’s case does not represent the first time the government has negotiated with the TLP. In November 2017, the group, which is described as a religiopolitical party, organized a 20-day sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange, a major traffic interchange in Islamabad. Practically paralyzing the movement of Pakistan’s capital city, the TLP was protesting a change in wording to the country’s Elections Bill 2017. The protest, which turned deadly, called for the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid. Hamid did resign after an agreement was forged between the protestors and the government.

Some, including Bibi’s lawyer, have been critical of the Pakistani government’s seeming capitulation to the TLP and their demands. After conceding to the TLP and allowing the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit Bibi to be appealed, Mullok said, “What’s painful is the response of the government. They cannot even implement an order of the country’s highest court.”

While it is unclear how much time the 86 members will ultimately serve in prison, the decision to sentence them does seem to signal an effort on the part of the government not to give in to violent demands from the extremist group.