Police have taken the leader of Pakistan’s far-right Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik movement and dozens of his supporters into “protective custody” in the country’s province of Punjab.
Friday night’s arrests came on the orders of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government after the TLP called for more protests Sunday over the acquittal of the Christian woman Asia Bibi. She had been on death row for almost eight years on blasphemy charges after an argument with a group of women over a glass of water.
The government has denied the detentions have anything to do with Bibi, who is in hiding in Pakistan amid calls for her death.
“(TLP leader) Khadim Hussain Rizvi has been taken into protective custody by police and shifted to a guest house,” Fawad Chaudhry, the federal minister for information and broadcasting, said on Twitter.
“They insisted to come to Rwp (Rawalpindi) refusing (the government’s) proposal for alternative arrangements. It’s to safeguard public life, property and order and has to do nothing with Asia Bibi case,” he wrote.
In a subsequent tweet, Chaudry said the government had tried to convince the hard-liners not to protest “but they refused every offer and started to provoke violence.” He said the “law shall take its course and it cannot be left to individuals.”
A spokesman for Punjab’s government, Shehbaz Gill, also said the arrests were aimed at preventing protests from going ahead out of fear for public safety.
Gill said that public order was disrupted the last time the TLP took to the streets, saying that protesters jammed into cities, attacked public properties and burned cars.
The TLP went on the rampage when Bibi was acquitted late last month, with violent protests in Islamabad and Lahore.
Bibi’s lawyer, relatives and supporters have appealed for the family to be given asylum in Europe or North America. Several countries have indicated their willingness to offer a home, but so far nothing concrete has emerged.
CNN’s Hilary Clarke wrote from London, and Adeel Raja reported from Islamabad.