Violent protests by thousands of hardline Islamists disrupted life in Pakistan's major cities for a third day on Friday as they pressed their demand for the acquittal of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy to be reversed.
The nationwide turmoil delayed the release of Asia Bibi after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction on Wednesday. She remained in custody amid negotiations for her to be granted asylum in another country after 10 years on death row.
"We are settling the matters first before her release, in this situation she is no more safe here," a family member told The National, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ms Bibi and her family have been placed under the protection of commandos, a senior military source told The National.
"She is still under threat even after the court orders," Ms Bibi's lawyer, Saiful Malook, told The National. "I know its unsafe for me but I will keep fighting for the vulnerable people of the society."
Ms Bibi's acquittal has put the recently installed government of Prime Minister Imran Khan under tremendous pressure. Talks on Thursday night between the government and Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), the hardline religious party leading the protests, failed to resolve the issue.
“Talks have completely failed. Federal and provincial representatives and Inter Services Intelligence General Faiz took part in talks,” TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi tweeted on Friday morning.
Despite Mr Khan's stern warning to the protesters on Wednesday night, his government has been unable to bring the situation under control. Protesters have blocked main roads in major cities such as the capital Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, causing long traffic jams. Schools across the country were ordered to remain closed.
Mr Khan began a visit to China on Friday and is due to return only on Monday.
Residents say they are unable to go to work and are losing income because of the protests. "I used to travel daily for marketing and sales of my business, but due to the lockdown by the protesters I have been in loss while the children are unable to attend school," said Azhar Ali, an Islamabad resident.
Footage from the protest sites showed angry mobs burning motorcycles, cars and buses and throwing shoes at posters of Supreme Court Chief Justice Saqib Nisar and Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“All three judges who had given this verdict should be killed," said Afzal Qadri, a TLP leader addressing a protest in the eastern city of Lahore. He urged the personal staff of the judges to kill them and for other generals to rebel against the army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.
The director general of the military Inter-Services Public Relations, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said on Friday that Ms Bibi had been acquitted by the Supreme Court and the army had nothing to do with the case.
"Unfortunately, the army is dragged into every matter," he said. "This is a legal matter and it is sad that negative statements are being issued against the army."
Information Minister Fawad Chaudhary defended the court decision on Twitter.
"Review petition, a legal right exercised by an individual, accepted by the court. Protests/violence instead of a legal course was unacceptable. No one can take law into hands and govt shall ensure writ of the state as expressed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan," he wrote.
Human-rights activists have welcomed the court verdict and called for a review of the criminal justice procedure in blasphemy cases.
"The verdict puts to an end the long and egregious miscarriage of justice in Asia Bibi's case. It also highlights the urgent need for reforming the criminal justice system to make it more inclusive, equitable and efficient for many others," Saroop ijaz, Pakistan researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The National.
"The government needs to be unambiguous in its commitment to uphold the decision and not capitulate to threats. The response to the protesters should be a rights-respecting one, which also makes it clear that no one will be allowed to put life and liberty of Pakistani citizens at risk.”
Ms Bibi’s case has divided the Pakistan, and led to the assassination of two politicians who defended her. One of them, Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was killed by his bodyguard in Islamabad in 2011.
Her plight reflects the difficulties faced Pakistan’s Christian minority, who comprise 2.6 per cent of the Muslim-majority country's 208 million people, amid growing intolerance as Islamist movements grow stronger.
The Pakistani government and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have reached an agreement late on Friday night to end the latter's nationwide protest with the government binding the concession to initiate the legal process to place Asia Bibi's name on the exit control list (ECL).