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Pakistani blasphemy death sentence demos draw thousands

media Supporters of the blasphemy law demonstrate in Karachi Reuters/Athar Hussain

Thousands of Pakistanis demonstrated and took part in strikes Friday against moves to scrap the death penalty for blasphemy. Religious parties and groups say the move is the result of foreign interference in the country’s affairs.

Markets were closed and roads deserted in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad, despite Thursday’s declaration by deputy information minister Samsam Bokhari that the government has no intention of amending the law.

Dossier: AfPak news and analysis

Religious groups say they will continue protests until the ruling People’s Party (PPP) to fire MP Sherry Rehman, a former information minister, who lodged a bill to abolish capital punishment for blasphemy.

This followed international outcry over the death sentence passed on a Christian woman found guilty of defaming the Prophet Mohammed earlier this year.

Islamic parties accuse the PPP of wanting to scrap the whole law.

“We support the strike because of the intention of the government - the suspicion we have that the government is intending to do away with the law or to amend the law,” Qazi Hussein Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami party told RFI.

And, he says, the move comes because of foreign pressure.

“Actually there is no public pressure [to amend the blasphemy laws],” he says. “Foreign pressure is forcing the government to amend the law. The Pakistani people are demonstrating their will and that they will protect the blasphemy law.”

Secular campaigners believe the strike is an assertion of power by the religious parties, who hold a minority of seats in the National Assembly.

“This is, in effect, an attempt by the religious parties to establish their importance in Pakistani society,” a frequent newspaper commentator and physics professor Pervez Hoodhboy. “They want to tell people that they are still strong and that they will not allow for secular legislation to go through.”

The blasphemy law is not only used against religious minorities, he says, it is also a means of controlling Muslims.

“Blasphemy laws are certainly used by minorities to scare them and to assert the importance of religion – meaning Islam - in society,” he says.

“But [the blasphemy law] is also used for suppressing dissent within Muslims. And the strike is an assertion that Pakistan is to be run by religious law and that the most important people are the clergy.”

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