Pakistan court grants bail to far-right TLP leaders

Two leaders of far-right party, who led protests against acquittal of a Christian woman, released by Lahore High Court.

A Pakistani court has granted bail to two leaders of a far-right party responsible for countrywide protests against the acquittal of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case last year.

The Lahore High Court on Tuesday granted bail to Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Afzal Qadri, two leaders of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) religious political party.

Rizvi, known for his firebrand speeches calling for those accused of blasphemy to be murdered, and Qadri had led countrywide protests against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi in November, and were arrested shortly thereafter.

During the protests, they had called the judges who acquitted Bibi “apostates” and urged their domestic staff and others to murder them. They also attacked Pakistan‘s army chief, a rarity in a country ruled for roughly half of its 71-year history by the military.

Earlier this month, Qadri tendered a written apology for the protests, promising to quit the party.

“I am very sorry for hurting the sentiments of the government, the judiciary and the chief of army staff,” he said in a televised apology while still in custody.

Rizvi, who has made his career holding agitational meetings across the country’s central Punjab province on the issue of blasphemy, did not make an apology, but was granted bail on medical grounds.

Both men are expected to be released from custody on Wednesday, after paying bail of Rs 500,000 (about $3,500). Qadri’s bail extends until July 15, the date of the next hearing in the case.

Blasphemy in Pakistan 

Blasphemy is a sensitive topic in Pakistan, where a conviction for the crime can carry a mandatory death sentence.

Increasingly, blasphemy allegations have led to violent mob attacks or murders. Since 1990, at least 74 people have been killed in connection with blasphemy charges, according to an Al Jazeera tally. They include those accused of blasphemy, their family members, lawyers and judges.

Rizvi and Qadri’s TLP has twice held major countrywide protests in recent years on the issue.

In November 2017, hundreds of TLP supporters blocked a major highway into the federal capital Islamabad for weeks, demanding that a minor change in an electoral law be reversed.

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In October, after spending eight years on death row, Aasia Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court of all charges in a blasphemy case that had become emblematic of fair trial issues in such cases. 

The acquittal led to days of protests in capital Islamabad, the eastern city of Lahore, and elsewhere, where Rizvi, Qadri and other TLP leaders demanded that the verdict be reversed.

The Supreme Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict Bibi, and that the prosecution’s case had been based on “glaring and stark” contradictions.

“[There is] the irresistible and unfortunate impression that all those concerned in the case with providing evidence and conducting investigation had taken upon themselves not to speak the truth of at least not to divulge the whole truth,” wrote Asif Saeed Khosa, the judge presiding over the hearing.

Bibi was granted asylum in Canada and left Pakistan last week, after being held for months in protective custody by Pakistani authorities

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