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Pakistani Islamists Suspend Protest March Under Deal With Government

Supporters of the Islamist political party Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan demand the release of their leader and the expulsion of the French ambassador over cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, in Lahore, Pakistan, on October 23.

A radical Islamist party in Pakistan agreed on October 24 to suspend a protest march for three days after Pakistani authorities vowed to drop pending charges against the party's leader.

Saad Rizvi, head of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party, was arrested in 2020 amid demonstrations against France linked to the publication of political cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

Rizvi was detained preemptively on a charge of inciting people to assemble unlawfully. It remains unclear when he would be released.

Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan supporters clashed with police in the eastern city of Lahore on October 22 when they started their protest march with the goal of reaching Islamabad to pressure the government for Rizvi's release.

Police say the violence led to the deaths of at least two police and injured about a dozen others. They said the demonstrators also torched several police vehicles.

Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan claims that four party supporters were killed by police fire and “many” others were injured.

On October 23, after leaving Lahore, the marchers clashed again with police who fired tear-gas canisters into the crowd.

Raja Basharat, the law minister for Punjab Province, said on October 24 that Pakistani authorities will withdraw charges against Rizvi and release all demonstrators detained during the previous two days by October 26.

Basharat said the agreement with the demonstrators stipulates that the federal government will honor a previous agreement with Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan in which it vowed to address diplomatic ties with France over the publication of the caricatures.

Party spokesman Sajid Saifi confirmed Basharat's account of the agreement.

Saifi said thousands of party supporters will stay in the town of Mureedke to wait for the release of party leaders and members who have been detained.

Pakistani Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters that the party's demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan would be taken to a parliamentary committee in the coming days.

Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on the single issue of defending the country’s blasphemy law. Those laws call for death penalty sentences against anyone who insults Islam.

The party has a history of staging violent protests to pressure the government to accept its demands.

With reporting by AP