Thousands join rallies over blasphemy law
ISLAMABAD - Thousands of people joined mass protests as religious parties called a strike that closed businesses across Pakistan against a bid to change the blasphemy law by the ruling party.
The Pakistan’s Peoples Party is already scrambling to stop its main coalition partner from pulling out of the governing coalition.
All major markets and business centres were closed in big cities and towns, following a move to amend the blasphemy law.
Thousands of supporters of religious parties chanting anti-American slogans rallied in the southwestern town of Chaman bordering Afghanistan and warned the government against any change in the law.
The strike went ahead despite a categorical announcement by deputy information minister Samsam Bokhari on Thursday that the government had no intention of amending the blasphemy law.
Reporters said markets were closed on Friday and roads deserted in the otherwise bustling cities of Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad and its neighbouring garrison town of Rawalpindi.
“We will start a civil disobedience movement if the government makes any amendment to the law,” the chairman of influential grouping the Sunni Ittehad Council, Sahebzada Fazal Karim, said.
Former information minister Sherry Rehman, from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), sparked fury when she lodged a private member’s bill seeking to abolish the death penalty for blasphemy.
Samsam Bokhari disassociated the government from the bill to amend the law, saying it was not the policy. “As far as the party is concerned, the law is not being amended, nor does the government intend to bring any change in it,” he said. Protest rallies were held across Pakistan.
The protests came at a time when President Asif Ali Zardari is leading efforts to pacify the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the second largest party in the governing coalition, which this week pulled its two ministers from the federal cabinet.
Our Karachi Correpondent Rehan Siddiqui adds: Although the strike called by religious parties was mostly peaceful in Karachi, police had to act in several parts of the city especially Shirin Jinnah Colony and they resorted to tear gas shells and air firing to disperse hundreds of protesters who wanted to proceed to the house of President Zardari. Police also said that the protesters near the president’s home pelted stones and shouted slogans.
Scores of demonstrators needed treatment after the police fird tear gas shells, although no one was reported injured.
There was a complete shut down in Karachi and other major cities in Sindh province. The call was fully backed by trade organisations and transporters that resulted in virtual halt of business activities in the country’s commercial capital and other parts of Sindh.
Traffic on major thoroughfares in Karachi was thin as no public or private buses were available leaving the commuters at the mercy of auto-rickshaws and taxis, who demanded exorbitant fares from the commuters.
Attendances at public sector offices as well as private and industrial units were low, while all the major markets, shopping centres and petrol pumps remained closed to show their solidarity with the protest call. Universities and colleges too had to postpone examinations. Protest rallies and demonstrations were held throughout the day with protesters shouting anti-government slogans, burning tyres and vowing that changes in the blasphemy laws would never be acceptable.
According to a rough estimate the loss to industry and the exchequer was in billions of rupees due to shut down of plants, factories and virtually no activity in Karachi port.