Pakistan orders release of cleric who led Asia Bibi protests

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 on Tuesday.

The decision to free the firebrand cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, came days after Ms. 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 the police launched a crackdown on hundreds of his supporters in Punjab province and the port city of Karachi. He was 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 Ms. 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 that the court had granted Rizvi bail, and said he was expected to be released late on Tuesday.

Country left paralysed

Rizvi and the TLP held furious protests after the Supreme Court’s decision to acquit Ms. 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 Ms. 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.