TENS of thousands of people crowded the streets of Lahore late on Sunday demanding freedom for the assassin of Punjab governor Salman Taseer.
The protestors are also demanding death for the US consular official who killed two suspected armed robbers in self-defence.
Demonstrators from religious parties Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan and the banned terrorist-linked charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa held banners in support of Mumtaz Qadri — the police guard who killed Taseer last month because the governor had supported changes to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.
Opposition party leaders from more mainstream parties also lined up to assure the protesters they would never support changes to the blasphemy law and would quit the National Assembly should the government attempt to amend them.
Protesters chanted slogans such as “Free Mumtaz Qadri” while demanding the harshest penalty for Raymond Davis, a US consular official who was arrested for double murder on Friday after shooting two armed motorcyclists he feared were about to rob him.
“We warn the government and administration that . . . if they help the arrested American illegally, then this crowd will surround the US embassy and presidential palace in Islamabad,” one official from the Jamiat Ulema Islam party said.
The US has demanded Mr Davis’s release, claiming he has diplomatic immunity, but the Pakistani government says the courts should decide his fate.
In another corner of the Punjab’s once feted cultural capital, 500 people attended a peace rally and remembrance vigil for the slain governor.
Among them was liberal commentator Raza Rumi, who conceded yesterday: “It’s not a good time to be a liberal in Pakistan.
“Forget liberal — it’s not a good time to be a moderate.”
Analysts say the fact that among the speakers at the larger rally was JUD founder Hafiz Saeed, believed to have also founded terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, says much about the complicity of state forces in Pakistan’s extremist groundswell.
But just as telling was who was sharing the podium.
Members of Imran Khan’s so-called moderate Tehreek-e-Insaaf (Movement for Justice) party also spoke in support of the blasphemy laws.
“All the major political parties from the Right and the centre were there, which shows the Right is capturing more and more political space,” says Rumi.
One after another in the weeks since Taseer was killed, the skittles the West has clung to as evidence that Pakistan is fundamentally a nation of moderate Muslims have been toppled.
Hundreds of lawyers scattered rose petals over Taseer’s killer Mumtaz Qadri last month in his first court appearance in the nation’s capital Islamabad.
South Asia’s moderate and peace-promoting Barelvi Muslims — previously themselves the target of radical Islamic attacks in Pakistan — have led their own rallies in recent weeks against the planned changes to the blasphemy laws and in support of Qadri.