Islamist protesters end sit-in at Pakistan's parliament

A hard-line Islamist group held four days of protests to press the government to uphold its strict blasphemy laws and to execute a Catholic woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. 

B.K. Bangash/ AP
Sunni Tehreek protestors sit near Pakistan's parliament house in Islamabad on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. Officials have warned protestors, some of whom have been demonstrating since Sunday, to peacefully disperse. The group has been denouncing the February execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in 2011 for criticizing the country's blasphemy laws.

Islamist leaders of a four-day protest in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, called off their action Wednesday, one day after Pakistani officials vowed to crack down on them.

Government officials agreed to consider some of the group's demands, as Geo News Pakistan reported, and assured protesters that they would not alter the strict blasphemy laws that protesters want to see upheld.

Thousands of members of Sunni Tehreek, a hard-line Islamist group, had joined the sit-in near the parliament. On Tuesday, government officials said they had 7,000 security forces standing by and asked the protesters to leave peacefully.

"We don't want any violence, but we can't tolerate it anymore," Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said Tuesday evening, according to The Associated Press.

The protest began Sunday, the end of a traditional 40-day mourning period for a policeman executed in February for shooting dead Punjab Governor Salman Taseer over his criticism of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

The group's demands include formally declaring the policeman, Mumtaz Qadri, a martyr; imposing Shariah law in Pakistan; releasing Sunni Tehreek leaders in jail; and executing Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, whom Gov. Taseer had defended and visited in jail.

Government officials have agreed not to change the blasphemy laws or soften sentences for those convicted under them. Negotiators also agreed to release peaceful protesters, and reconsider charges against Muslim clerics, Geo News reported.

Forty-two police and 16 others have been injured, and over 1,100 protesters arrested, according to the Times of India, which reported that protesters' vandalism had caused over $2 million in damage.

The protest has continued throughout three days of mourning for victims of Sunday's suicide bombing in a park in Lahore, which killed at least 72 people. Jamat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban offshoot, claimed responsibility and said it was targeting Christians and protesting the government's anti-Taliban military offensives. Most of those killed, however, were Muslim.

Mr. Qadri confessed to shooting the governor for challenging blasphemy laws that were enacted in the 1980s. At least 19 people are currently on death row for offenses such as defiling the Quran or insulting the Prophet Muhammad, according to a July 2015 report from Human Rights Watch, which has criticized the laws for targeting religious minorities and says they are often used to settle personal disputes.

No one has ever been executed for blasphemy, however, although mob violence has killed several Pakistanis accused of blasphemy.

The case of Ms. Bibi, a mother accused of insulting Mohammed in an argument with other farm workers, and the first woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws, has attracted international attention. Pope Benedict XVI called for her release in 2010. She is currently awaiting an appeal.

The protesters in Islamabad called for her execution. They said Gov. Taseer's assassin was justified in killing him because the governor criticized Bibi's conviction.

"I said that she should be pardoned, and this is a travesty and shame that a poor woman like this who hasn't the means to defend herself [against] trumped-up charges," Taseer said, as NPR reported before his death. "And in a country where your prime minister is Muslim, your president is Muslim, you're 95 percent Muslim — what is the need for laws like this?"

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