Pakistan frees far-right TLP chief after deal following protests

Saad Rizvi released in Lahore after weeks of negotiations that followed deadly protests in the Muslim-majority country.

TLP chief Saad Rizvi gestures to his supporters after being released from jail in Lahore [Mohsin Raza/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani authorities have released the chief of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a spokesman of the religious group says, after weeks of negotiations that followed deadly protests in the Muslim-majority country.

Saad Rizvi was released in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday evening, TLP spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Al Jazeera. Local media showed images of Rizvi being greeted by jubilant supporters at the party’s headquarters, located in a Lahore mosque.

The move comes weeks after the government and the TLP reached an agreement to end 10 days of violent protests that saw at least seven police officials killed and dozens wounded, as protesters blocked major roads and a highway in and around Lahore.

Rizvi was released on the eve of his father, TLP founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s, death anniversary on Friday. The party said it planned to hold three days of ceremonies to mark the anniversary.

TLP supporters light fireworks as they celebrate the release of their leader Saad Rizvi [Mohsin Raza/Reuters]

An influential and hardline Muslim scholar, the elder Rizvi founded the TLP as a religious organisation focused against perceived blasphemy against Islam. The group calls for all perceived blasphemers against Islam to be put to death, and has been linked to violence against the country’s Ahmadi religious minority.

Rizvi’s funeral in November 2020 was attended by tens of thousands of supporters.

Since its formation in 2017, the group has held several rounds of countrywide protests that have brought Pakistan to a standstill, often resulting in casualties during confrontations with the police.

In 2020, the group focused its protests against comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron that were considered by many Muslims – including Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan – to be Islamophobic.

The TLP demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador and a boycott of all trade with the country, demands that the government did not accede to.

In April, the Pakistani government moved to ban the TLP under anti-terrorism legislation, taking Saad Rizvi into custody under administrative orders related to that legislation.

While the agreement reached to end the latest round of protests was not made public, on November 7 PM Khan’s cabinet revoked the declaration of the TLP as a banned group and a provincial government moved to remove Rizvi’s name from an anti-terrorism watchlist.

Not all in the government appeared to support the move, with Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry on Thursday saying the government had “retreated in case of the TLP”.

“Many people think that the remedial steps taken by [the government] are inadequate while the truth is that neither the government nor the state is completely ready to fight extremism,” the minister said in a speech in the capital Islamabad.

Responding to Chaudhry’s comments, TLP spokesman Ashrafi denied the group was spreading hatred and blamed “extremism” on “a foreign hand”.

The TLP will hold three days of ceremonies to mark the first death anniversary of founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi in Lahore from Friday, with the city’s police chief and head of local administration providing security and logistical support, Ashrafi said.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera