The acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, and three days of protests after have exposed long-running fault lines in Pakistani society. Here's a look at how it played out on Pakistani social media.

A man eats a corn cob while driving along a road where a protest was held against the Supreme Court decision to overturn the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, in Islamabad, Pakistan November 2, 2018.
A man eats a corn cob while driving along a road where a protest was held against the Supreme Court decision to overturn the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, in Islamabad, Pakistan November 2, 2018. (Reuters Archive)

Pakistan's apex court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death in 2010 on blasphemy charges, in a landmark ruling announced on October 30, that ignited protests by hardline religious groups, predominantly the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), in several cities across the country.

During the course of the protests and amid the images of destruction and mayhem, the suffering of ordinary people also came to light.

These included a video of child, who was selling bananas, getting stuck in the midst of charged protestors who eventually made off with all the produce he had to offer.

In another disturbing video, a small group of children are seen tying a noose around a doll's neck and dangling the toy while chanting slogans associated with the TLP.

Earlier on October 8, the Supreme Court of Pakistan reserved its judgment after deciding on Bibi's 2014 appeal against the 2010 death sentence handed to her.

The Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) had threatened to protest and take to the streets if the Supreme Court verdict was issued in favour of Asia Bibi.

Many people were delighted by the verdict that set free a woman who had been falsely accused and had already served eight years in prison. 

But many others, mostly TLP supporters, began to stage protests in major cities of Pakistan immediately after Asia Bibi's acquittal was announced on October 30, which only intensified in the days to come.

The TLP leaders also issued an edict calling for the three judges, who had ruled in Asia Bibi's acquittal, to be killed.

The leaders of the religious party also called for a mutiny within the army, and specifically against the Army Chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa, and urged his followers to topple Imran Khan's government.

As the protests turned violent, many people began to question the inaction of law enforcement personnel and the absence of the writ of the state.

Around the same time Prime Minister Imran Khan, who also holds the federal interior ministry, left the country on a three-day visit to Beijing.

A few people were killed and several others wounded during the protests, according to social media reports, which could not be independently verified.

Some citizens were taken aback by the coverage of the protests on local media who had, once again, downplayed the TLP demonstrations. The country's media regulator urged media organisations to tone down their coverage so as to not further inflame the situation. Social media, thus, took the lead in providing coverage of the events.

While people who were against Asia Bibi's acquittal were expressing themselves by taking to the streets, people in favour of the Supreme Court verdict mostly expressed themselves by condemning the protests.

The PTI-TLP connection?

Some people chose to give the governing Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf a reminder of their own past actions and policies when the Imran Khan-led party had chosen to side with the religious groups and take up their cause during the July general elections.

Some TLP supporters also tried to point out that the behaviour of their party and leaders was similar to that of the PTI supporters and leaders before the party came into power.

Twitter suspension

Then, as Twitter suspended the account of TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi for violating their rules, many saw it as a positive development. But supporters of the religious leader considered it as an attack on freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, some tried to find humour in the whole situation.

Viral 'swordsman'

Out of all the images and videos of the mayhem that were circulating online, one image of a protestor holding a sword stood out the most and caught the attention of the Pakistani social media users.

The meme-generating factories in Pakistan then went into overdrive, engaging in photoshop battles.

But the swordman's fifteen minutes of fame did not last, and the man was arrested.

The protests by Pakistan's hardline groups also appeared to have garnered the attention of Dutch conservative leader Geert Wilders.

Asia Bibi's case

Asia Bibi, a Christian farm labourer, spent eight years on death row after she was accused by a group of women of making remarks blasphemous  to Islam in 2009 following a fight that reportedly broke out over sharing a cup to drink water.

Asia Bibi denied the accusations, saying the women, along with a local cleric, had fabricated the charges. In 2010, a municipal court convicted her of committing blasphemy and sentenced her to death by hanging. Over the next few years, Asia Bibi’s case continued to polarise the country

Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and former Punjab governor Salman Taseer were assassinated in 2011 for defending Asia Bibi and advocating for reforms in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. 

The murders had also silenced a segment of society who had been seeking amendments in the country's controversial blasphemy laws, especially regarding the punishment for making false accusations.

Most religious groups consider any debate around the blasphemy laws to be blasphemy itself.

Dozens of Pakistanis - including many minority Christians or members of the Ahmadi faith - have been sentenced to death for blasphemy in the past decade, though no one has been executed.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Taseer’s assassin, his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri, was executed in 2016, but the execution turned him into a martyr. 

Qadri’s supporters dedicated a shrine to him, and his actions inspired the foundation of the TLP party. But the demonstrations were downplayed in the Pakistani media.

No action was taken against the demonstrators who in some instances were seen hurling abuses at the powerful Pakistani military, an offense that rarely goes unpunished otherwise.

The rise of TLP

The TLP had rode to prominence in November 2017 when the group staged a sit-in accusing the then law minister Zahid Hamid of blasphemy against Islam. They demanded the minister's dismissal and arrest over an attempt to make a small change in wording to an electoral law changing a religious oath to a simple declaration. 

The religious party said the amendment in the law amounted to blasphemy.

Private TV stations were ordered off the air, with only state-run television broadcasting. Mobile phone coverage was also blocked in many areas.

Following the federal government's call for the Pakistan Army's help in clearing the sit-in, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwah called on the civilian government to end the protest while “avoiding violence from both sides”.

The protests eventually ended after the then PML-N government struck a deal with the TLP that also saw the law minister resign from his post.

Those arrested for causing destruction of property during the protests were also later released on court's orders.

Upon their release, some of the protesters were also handed cash that was distributed by the military, according to a video in which a general, who is seen handing out envelopes, can be heard telling the protestors, "Aren't we one of you?"

Source: TRTWorld and agencies