ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Imran Khan won praise for his stance against religious hardliners Thursday, as demonstrators blocked major roads to protest the Supreme Court’s overturning of a blasphemy conviction.
Khan has vowed to confront extremists who called for the assassination of the country’s Supreme Court justices, and for mutiny against the army’s top brass, after the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy.
“We will protect people’s properties and lives, we will not allow any sabotage,” Khan said in a nationally televised address Wednesday.
Blasphemy is a massively inflammatory charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Mohammed can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.
Khan’s speech drew praise across social media, including from those formerly critical of the prime minister.
Prominent journalist Mosharraf Zaidi hailed a “remarkable speech” and a column in the English daily Dawn said Khan had taken “an unequivocal and strong line against religious bigotry and hatred that we have not seen taken in almost two decades”.
“Prime Minister Imran Khan was admirably forthright in condemning those who believe violence is the appropriate response to a judicial verdict with which they disagree,” said the English-language The News, which is often a critic of the PM.
Others however highlighted the prime minister’s mixed record on addressing the controversy around blasphemy issues in Pakistan.
“Wish Imran khan had delivered similar speech in the last Faizabad dharna,” tweeted Balal Haider, referring to Khan’s silence during similar anti-blasphemy protests last year.
There was no indication Thursday that the authorities were preparing to clear the small pockets of protesters that continue to block major thoroughfares in the cities of Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi.
The demonstrations are being largely led by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party, which is known for its hardline stance on blasphemy issues.
TLP, founded in 2015, blockaded the capital Islamabad for several weeks last year calling for stricter enforcement of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
That protest forced the resignation of the federal law minister and paved the way for the group to poll more than 2.23 million votes in the July 25 general election, in what analysts called a “surprisingly” rapid rise.
The party’s chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi has also vowed to “wipe Holland off the face of the earth” over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed if TLP were able to secure power of the nuclear-armed country.
The protests come as Khan prepares to depart for a four-day trip to China, where he will likely seek financial assistance from Beijing to shore up the country’s deteriorating finances.