Pakistan outlaws extremist group after days of anti-France riots

Ben Farmer
·2 min read
A supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) Islamist political party hurls stones towards police (not pictured) during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Lahore, Pakistan April 13, 2021.
A supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) Islamist political party hurls stones towards police (not pictured) during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Lahore, Pakistan April 13, 2021.

An extremist anti-blasphemy party which has brought parts of Pakistan's major cities to a standstill in three days of violent protests will now be banned, a senior minister has said.

Followers of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have fought police and blocked major road arteries in protests demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador in the Prophet Mohammad cartoons row.

Two policemen have died of their wounds and another 340 have been injured in clashes as officers have fought to keep control.

"We have decided to ban the TLP and the draft is going to the cabinet for approval," Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told a press conference.

He said the party's demand risked making Pakistan look like a "radical nation" to the outside world and the group would be outlawed under anti-terrorism legislation.

The protests had struck as the country is enduring its third wave of Covid-19 cases and road blockages have disrupted oxygen deliveries, officials said.

The TLP has amassed huge grassroots support with its rallying cry to protect the honour of the Prophet against blasphemy. Its members brought parts of Pakistan to a standstill in 2018 to denounce the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian farm worker wrongly accused of blasphemy.

The party again held mass protests late last year over France's response to the killing of a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad to pupils during a civics lesson.

Imran Khan's government had attempted to appease the TLP by agreeing to seek a parliamentary resolution to expel the French envoy. Yet as the April 20 deadline approached, the TLP leader was earlier this week arrested in Lahore, touching off the riots.

"We are in favour of protecting the Prophet's honour, but the demand which they are seeking could have portrayed Pakistan as a radical nation worldwide," said Mr Ahmed.

Pakistan has a history of avoiding confrontation with hardline Islamist groups or attempting to co-opt and encourage them. Some analysts say the TLP has been deliberately courted by the powerful military establishment.

Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan expert at the Chatham House think tank, said the legal move was “less a ban than a bombastic move to temporarily turn off this toxic tap, before it is allowed to flow again and service the interests of the ruling dispensation”.