ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government has decided not to use force against people protesting against the Supreme Court decision to release Asia Bibi, the Christian woman who had been imprisoned for eight years on blasphemy charges and who was facing a death sentence.
Shaheryar Khan Afridi, state minister for the interior, announced it in the National Assembly on Thursday after the federal government’s consultations with higher authorities in all four provinces. His words struck a different tone after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s tough televised address to the nation on Wednesday.
“The government has initiated dialogue with protesters to disperse them peacefully,” he said. “The nation will get good news soon.”
Before Afridi made his statement on the floor of the house, Federal Minister for Higher Education Shafqat Mahmood said that the government was trying to address the situation in different ways.
“Negotiations are underway with those who believe in the rule of law,” he said, “and security forces are also prepared to disperse those who are challenging the state’s writ.”
The minister said the government was fulfilling its responsibility by ensuring that the Supreme Court judgment was carried out. “We believe in the rule of law and stand with the Supreme Court,” he added.
Bibi remained at an undisclosed location Thursday, where the 54-year-old mother of five was being held for security reasons, awaiting her formal release, her brother James Masih said.
Masih said his sister simply would not be safe in Pakistan. “She has no other option and she will leave the country soon,” he said. Masih would not disclose the country of her destination but both France and Spain have offered asylum.
In defiance of the government’s warnings, hard-liners blocked roads in major cities for the second consecutive day on Thursday, demanding that the Supreme Court verdict be overturned.
Pakistan’s opposition parties have extended a helping hand to the government to deal with the crisis through dialogue with the protesters.
They said that Prime Minister Imran Khan should win the confidence of members of the National Assembly over his strategy.
“This is a sensitive issue and should be resolved through dialogue,” Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz lawmaker, Khawaja Saad Rafique, said while advising the government not to use force against the protesters. “We don’t want to exploit the situation for political gains,” he said. “Some elements are on the roads in the name of religion but no intelligent person can support their narrative.”
Pakistan Peoples Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said a joint strategy should be devised to deal with the situation. “We can steer the country out of this crisis by joining hands,” he said. “It is our collective responsibility to maintain law and order.”
However, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal lawmaker, Abdul Shakoor, accused the government of not pursuing the case against Bibi more diligently. “The whole Pakistani nation has rejected the Supreme Court’s verdict, and we are even ready to sacrifice our lives to protect the honor of the Prophet,” he told Arab News.