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Imran under fire for deal with hardliners in blasphemy row

Imran under fire for deal with hardliners in blasphemy row

Islamabad: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan returned home to a deepening political crisis on Monday, with pressure mounting over a deal struck with Islamist hardliners that analysts say has eroded faith in his government.

Khan spent the last four days on a state visit to China, trying to win some desperately needed relief for his country’s parlous finances, as his homeland fractured over the fate of Asia Bibi — a Christian woman cleared of blasphemy charges last week by the Supreme Court.

The overturning of her conviction, which Pakistan’s top judges ruled was based on flimsy evidence, ended Bibi’s eight-year ordeal on death row. But it enraged Islamist hardliners who took to the streets, blockaded major cities and demanded her immediate execution.

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even the whiff of an unsubstantiated allegation of insulting Islam can spark death at the hands of mobs. The protests were only brought to an end once Khan’s administration agreed to a deal with the hardliners —Bibi would remain in Pakistan while a final review of the Supreme Court's ruling takes place.

Many critics saw the climbdown as another capitulation to hardliners who called for the assassination of the country’s Supreme Court justices and mutiny against the army's top brass in the ruling's wake.

“The government seems to be directionless and it does not seem to have a proper strategy,” said analyst Fasi Zaka. “The government has just bought time and we’re still waiting to see what they do.”

Only a few days earlier, Khan had been riding a wave of positive energy.

Shortly before his departure for China, he delivered a speech vowing to confront the protesters head on.

The protests calling for Bibi’s execution were being headed by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP), which is known for whipping up anger over blasphemy and successfully achieved a Minister’s resignation under the previous administration in 2017 by blockading roads into Islamabad for more than three weeks. Many critics of Mr. Khan noted that it was the second time his young administration had folded to TLP demands after his government sacked an economics adviser belonging to the Ahmadi religious minority following pressure from its outspoken leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

“Khan may have won the election, but it is Rizvi who seems to be ruling Pakistan today,” wrote columnist Fahd Husain in an editorial published in the English daily The Express Tribune over the weekend. “The government must act against the TLP to sustain its popularity,” added analyst Amir Rana. “The government looks weak and fragile.”

However, the Pakistan government continued to defend the deal on Monday, saying that the agreement had averted violence. “We dispersed them in a peaceful way which is an achievement,” said Information Minister Fawad Chaudry.

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