After new riots against Asia Bibi, the Pakistani judiciary tried to put an end to the party’s violence. It did not succeed.
by Massimo Introvigne
The three years between 2018 and 2020 were crucial for Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. It looked like events were unfolding so rapidly that nobody really knew how to deal with them.
As mentioned in earlier articles, the party was founded to try, unsuccessfully, to avoid that the assassin of the Punjab governor Salman Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri, would be executed. Qadri had killed Taseer for his support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman that a first-degree court had sentenced to death for blasphemy.
On October 31, 2018, Asia Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court. All religious parties participated in the protests that followed, but the lead was quickly taken by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which had successfully experimented with urban guerrilla and highway blocks in 2016 and 2017, in both cases compelling the government to negotiate, and in 2017 achieving his main aim, the resignation of the then Justice Minister Zahid Ahmid, regarded as “soft” on the Ahmadis.
Once again, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan paralyzed the country by blocking the highways, and this time also the main train lines, while riots in several cities saw cars burned and shops looted. For several days, it looked like the government was no longer able to control the country, and was reluctant to ask the army to intervene, perhaps because it suspected that senior generals might either side with the Barelvi or take the opportunity for yet another military coup.
We saw in earlier articles that not all senior Barelvi Pir (Sufi masters) supported Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and his leader Khadim Husain Rizvi, but some did, and one, Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, was a member of the party and was even regarded by some as its real leader. Qadri was a qualified Pir, and he issued a fatwa stating that the Supreme Court judges who had acquitted Asia Bibi could and should be killed. He also demanded the resignation of the Army Chief and of a number of generals, and of Prime Minister Imran Khan and all his ministers.
The army showed an extraordinary restraint, as it merely called Pir Qadri’s statement as “unfortunate,” while the Prime Minister warned the Barelvi party against “compelling the state to take action.”
However, Pakistani governments had by now a tradition of negotiating with Rizvi, and negotiations were already underway, although they were not publicized. Finally, an agreement was signed where the government undertook to prevent Asia Bibi from leaving the country pending further review of her case by the Supreme Court, and not to prosecute party members who had participated in the riots and had not been guilty of major crimes, while Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan apologized to those it might have been damaged and offended during the shops looting, car burning, and other unpalatable moments of the protests.
It is unclear whether the government intended to keep its bargain with Rizvi’s party and was overcome by some more secular members of the judiciary, or signed the agreement knowing that judges would interpret “major crimes” extensively and arrest members of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan en masse.
After the agreement was signed, prosecutors ordered the arrest of hundreds of party members accused of arson and attacks against the police. Not much came out of these cases, and the Minister of Interior insisted that the bargain should be kept. However, the judiciary adopted a strategy that looked very promising to crack down on Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Rather than prosecuting its leaders for the 2018 riots, which were covered by the agreement, they incriminated them for those of 2017 against Justice Minister Zahid Ahmid.
It did not matter, the judges argued, that the Minister had resigned, the point was that during the 2017 riots the leadership of the party had incited its members to breach the law and attack police officers, four of whom had been killed. On November 23, 2018, arrests started and Rizvi himself was taken to jail, together with Ashraf Asif Jalali, who by then was leading an anti-Rizvi splinter group but was regarded as co-responsible of the 2017 violence. On November 25, Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri was also arrested. Detaining a popular Pir was a bold move by the judges, but the crackdown continued and the police arrested hundreds of party members.
Local Ministry of Interior authorities, however, ordered the release of most militants, while Rizvi and Pir Qadri remained in jail. The government was also not particularly pleased by the judges’ investigation on the covert support Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan had received in 2017 by senior figures of the army and the all-powerful Pakistani intelligence service ISI.
Politicians persuaded the judges to free Rizvi and Qadri on bail, and de facto freeze their prosecution, if they would apologize for the violence perpetrated in 2017. Although judges initially regarded Qadri’s apology as insufficient, in the end they accepted his promise that he would retire from politics. On May 14, 2019, Rizvi and Qadri were granted bail, ostensibly for health reasons, and left jail.
One of the reasons the duo was kept in jail is that both the government and the senior judges, aware of the international mobilization in favor of Asia Bibi, had decided that the Supreme Court would confirm her acquittal and she would be allowed to leave Pakistan. Asia Bibi’s acquittal was confirmed on January 29, 2019, and she left the country on May 8, not coincidentally while the leaders of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan were in jail. Protests were organized, and the Barelvi were not the only enemies of Asia Bibi, but street demonstrations were controlled through a few dozens of arrests and did not remotely achieve the national scope of 2018.
Senior judges expressed their confidence that Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan had been liquidated, or at least persuaded to refrain from violence. They had not foreseen the Charlie Hebdo case, which would project once again in late 2020 Rizvi’s party to the center of Pakistan’s political scene—and political violence as well.