Pakistan was tense on Thursday amid protests against the acquittal of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. All schools in Lahore and all private schools in Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad were closed as protests continued for the second day.

The country’s Supreme Court had on Wednesday acquitted Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death for blasphemy by a trial court in 2010. Bibi had appealed in the Supreme Courtagainst a 2014 Lahore High Court order upholding the trial court’s decision. Protests broke out immediately after the verdict in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Multan.

Soon after the verdict on Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan hit out at religious hardliners who protested her acquittal. Khan appealed to the protestors not to clash with the state and assured citizens of protection. The prime minister condemned the “small segment” of people who were protesting against the Supreme Court verdict. He also criticised the protestors for using bad language against Supreme Court judges and the Army.

He further said: “I appeal to you, don’t harm this country in order to [increase your] vote bank. If you continue doing this... let me make it clear to you... the state will fulfil its duty [and] protect people’s properties and lives. We will not allow any vandalism [or] blockage of traffic.”

Protestors led by Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan and other groups blocked major highways and roads in many parts of the country. Cellphone signals were suspended in several areas of Lahore, Dawn reported. Hospitals were put on high alert due to fear of violent clashes.

Earlier, the Tehreek-e-Labaik party had called for the death of the chief justice of the Supreme Court and two other judges who acquitted Bibi. The party also called for Imran Khan’s ouster, Reuters reported.

Blasphemy is a criminal offence in Pakistan, and insults against Prophet Muhammad are punishable by death.

The case

Asia Bibi was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad during an argument with a group of women in her neighbourhood near Lahore in 2009. The women had said they could no longer use a cup from which Bibi had had water, because of her religion. Bibi later acknowledged she had used “hot words” during the argument that followed, but claimed to have not said anything blasphemous, BBC reported. She has spent most of the last eight years in solitary confinement.

In 2011, Salman Taseer, who was then the governor of Punjab province, was assassinated by a bodyguard in Islamabad, days after he expressed support for Bibi.

According to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, around 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy.