Pakistan orders release of cleric who led Asia Bibi protests

Lahore (Pakistan) (AFP) –


A Pakistani court has ordered the release on bail of a hardline cleric who last year paralysed the country by orchestrating violent protests against the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy, his organisation said Tuesday.

The decision to free the firebrand cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, came days after Bibi left Pakistan after spending eight years on death row in a case which spotlighted religious extremism in the conservative Muslim country.

She is believed to have been reunited with her family in Canada.

Rizvi was detained in November last year after police launched a crackdown on hundreds of his supporters in Punjab province and the port city of Karachi.

He had been charged with terrorism and sedition offences by the Pakistani government, after he led violent protests to oppose the Supreme Court's decision on October 31 to finally overturn Bibi's conviction and death sentence.

"Today the Lahore High Court granted bail to Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi," Pir Ijaz Ashrafi, a spokesman for Rizvi's group Tehreek-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), said in a video message posted on Twitter.

A Lahore High Court official confirmed to AFP that the court had granted Rizvi bail, and said he was expected to be released late Tuesday.

Rizvi and the TLP held furious protests after the Supreme Court's decision to acquit Bibi last year.

Demonstrators blocked major roads in protest, burning cars and buses, and leaving large swathes of the country paralysed as they called for her execution.

The group also called for mutiny in the armed forces and assassination of the country's top judges for acquitting her.

The government managed to defuse tensions by striking a deal that allowed another review of Bibi's case, but when the TLP threatened to launch another protest some weeks later Rizvi and other leaders were taken into custody as part of a crackdown.

They have been in detention since.

Bibi has technically been a free woman since the review of her case -- also conducted by the Supreme Court -- was dismissed in January.

It is believed that she was held in protective custody while awaiting an asylum deal before she finally fled Pakistan less than a week ago. The US has said she has been reunited with her family.

Blasphemy is a hugely inflammatory issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and Prophet Mohammed can lead to lynchings and murders.

Bibi's conviction stemmed from an incident in 2009 when she argued with Muslim co-labourer.

She consistently denied the charges, and her case rallied international rights groups, politicians and religious figures.

She spent eight years on death row before the Supreme Court decision to free her.