RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – Thousands of supporters of a hardline Islamist party clashed with police on the main road into Pakistan’s capital city on Monday following protests over the recent use of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in France, and several people were injured.
The protesters from the Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party that has made blasphemy its rallying cry are demanding that the government severs diplomatic ties with France and expels its ambassador, police and party officials said.
The government has yet to respond to their demands.
Police blocked the demonstrators as they attempted to enter Islamabad. Some chanted that the only punishment for a blasphemer was beheading, police official Tauqeer Shah said.
The protesters attacked the police with bricks, stones and sticks, he added.
“Several of our officers were injured,” he said, adding that nearly 2,000 protesters had camped at the main entrance to the city, refusing to leave.
“We want the government to expel the French ambassador immediately,” the TLP’s vice president Zaheer-ul-Hasan said in a video statement. He added that scores of protesters were injured in the clashes.
Protests broke out in several Muslim countries over France’s response to a deadly attack last month on a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammad to pupils during a civics lesson. For Muslims, depictions of the Prophet are blasphemous.
In the knife attack, an 18-year-old man of Chechen origin beheaded the teacher, Samuel Paty.
French officials said the beheading was an assault on the core French value of freedom of expression.
After satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo re-published the cartoons in September, French President Emmanuel Macron said the freedom to blaspheme went hand in hand with the freedom of belief in France.
In Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries, people accused France’s government of being Islamophobic and needlessly provoking believers. Pakistan has condemned the re-printing of the cartoons.
There is a history of violent reaction to alleged incidents of blasphemy in Pakistan, where insulting the Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty.
Members of the TLP party also camped for several days at the same entrance to Islamabad in 2017 to demand that a small change in local law be deemed blasphemous. In ensuing clashes, at least six protesters and one member of the police were killed and more than 150 injured.
Islamabad’s administration on Monday blocked most of the main roads into the city as well as mobile phone signals to prevent protesters from regrouping, a move that paralysed the capital.
“We’re trying our best to clear the route,” the capital’s deputy commissioner Hamza Shafaat tweeted.
Later in the day, paramilitary forces tried to disperse the protesters, but were forced to back away.