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Pakistan blocks social media access after violent anti-France protests

·2-min read

Pakistan's government ordered the country's telecoms agency to temporarily shut down social media and instant messaging platforms on Friday after days of violent anti-France protests.

In a notice to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, the Interior Ministry requested a "complete blocking" of Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, YouTube and Telegram until 3pm (1100 GMT).

Pakistan internet users encountered difficulty accessing apps including WhatApp, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter from Friday morning.

The notice gave no reason for the ban but it came a day after the French embassy in Islamabad advised French nationals and companies in Pakistan to temporarily leave after rallies led by the hardline Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik (TLP) called for the expulsion of the French ambassador and a boycott of French products.

Anti-French sentiment has been festering for months in Pakistan since French President Emmanuel Macron threw his support behind the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo's right to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed – an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

Earlier this week, the Pakistani interior ministry said it would outlaw the TLP and detained the group's leader, Saad Rizvi, a move that sparked violent protests in which two police officers were killed and around 580 injured.

A 'note' from jailed leader of outlawed group

The shutting down of social media sites on Friday, the weekly holiday in Pakistan, came as police officials moved to clear a large demonstration in the eastern city of Lahore, and just hours after the government said Rizvi had urged his supporters to stand down.

In a statement, Rizvi asked his supporters to peacefully disperse for the good of the country and end their main sit-in that began Monday, when police arrested the radical cleric for threatening protests if the government did not expel the French ambassador before April 20.

Rizvi's arrest sparked violent protests by his followers, who disrupted traffic by staging sit-ins across the country. Although security forces cleared almost all of the rallies, thousands of Rizvi’s followers are still assembled in Lahore, vowing to die in order to protect the honour of Islam's Prophet Mohammed.

Son takes over group leadership from late father

Rizvi became the leader of the TLP in November after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi. The late party leader played a prominent role in blocking any moves to reform Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws.

The party denounced Macron last year, saying he tried to defend blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed as freedom of expression.

The images had been republished by Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial over the deadly 2015 attack against the publication for the original caricatures.

In recent years Rizvi’s group has became known for opposing any change to the country’s harsh blasphemy laws, under which anyone accused of insulting Islam or other religious figures can be sentenced to death if found guilty.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)