20 November 2020 20:38
ISLAMABAD: The hardline Pakistani religious leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who rose to prominence in the last five years by campaigning on the issue of "blasphemy" against Islam, breathed his last in the eastern city of Lahore late on Thursday. Rizvi, the founder of the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party, was behind the recent protests against France over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed. While neither his family nor party shared the cause of his death, some claimed that he had contracted Covid-19 and others cited heart failure as the cause of death. "He had a fever and breathing problems for the last few days. His condition deteriorated on Thursday afternoon and he was taken to Sheikh Zayed Hospital, where he was pronounced dead," said Ijaz Ashrafi, a senior TLP leader.
"He was not feeling well when he came to the protest sit-in," Ashrafi said, referring to this week's anti-government protest where hundreds of TLP supporters had blocked a major highway into Islamabad. The protest was against the French government, and remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron that defended the "right to blaspheme" under free speech rights, after a French teacher was beheaded by a teenager for displaying caricatures of Prophet Muhammed in a class on freedom of speech last month. The protesters had demanded that the government expel the French ambassador and sever diplomatic ties with Paris. The demonstration was called off after the government signed an agreement with TLP leaders to boycott French goods and consider expelling the ambassador. This was the third time in the last five years that Rizvi had cut off Islamabad from the rest of Pakistan. He had done so in 2016 while demanding the hanging of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. In 2017, he had brought life to standstill for three weeks in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad in defence of the blasphemy law and had succeeded in securing the resignation of the then law minister, Zahid Hamid, holding him responsible for a minor change in words to an electoral oath which omitted a clause that excluded those of the Ahmadi sect. Rizvi contended that the change amounted to blasphemy. Rizvi became a national figure when one of his followers, Mumtaz Qadri, had gunned down Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011 for calling for reforms to the strict blasphemy laws. Rizvi led a movement for the release of Qadri, who had been Taseer's official bodyguard. In 2018, Rizvi's TLP participated in elections for the first time and shocked his critics when it won three provincial assembly seats. Despite the modest return, TLP established itself as a political force to be reckoned with, securing 2.2 million votes from across the country. With his death, observers believe, his party will likely fracture into different factions. Party leaders say consultations will be held following Rizvi's funeral to determine his successor. His funeral will be held at Minar-e-Pakistan, a national monument, in Lahore on Saturday and is expected to draw thousands. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa both expressed their condolences on Rizvi's death.