Pakistani protesters end sit-in after govt gives in to their demands

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ISLAMABAD: The weeks-long sit-in that disrupted life in the Pakistani capital came to an end on Monday as the country’s law minister resigned.

The right-wing protesters, led by the newly formed hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) party, said that they were dispersing peacefully after the government agreed to remove Zahid Hamid from his post for his alleged involvement in a quickly reversed change in the wording of an oath for lawmakers that declares Prophet Muhammad as God’s final Prophet.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa decided in a meeting to resolve the issue through negotiations with the protesters.

The six-point agreement reached between the government and the protesters bears the signature of Maj. Gen. Faiz Hameed as a guarantor, and thanks the army chief and his team for their special efforts in “saving the nation from a big catastrophe.”

But Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, an Islamabad High Court judge who was hearing a petition related to the sit-in on Monday, criticized the army’s role in the matter.

“Who is the army to adopt a mediator’s role?” he asked Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal. “Where does the law assign this role to a major general?”

Addressing a press conference, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the chief of TLYR, ordered his followers to end their sit-in and go home. He also announced an end to the shutter-down strike being observed at his command around the country.

“The government has accepted all our demands,” he said. “We are ending our sit-in now.”

Shortly after this announcement, the security forces began removing shipping containers from the sit-in site at Faizabad Interchange, the main gateway between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, which the protesters had blocked since Nov. 8.

Under the agreement, the hardliners agreed not to issue a religious decree against the law minister, as blasphemy is a combustive issue in Pakistan and any statement from them could endanger his life.

“Tehreek-e-Labbaik will issue no fatwa of any kind against him,” the agreement said.

Another point of the agreement said that an inquiry board will be established to investigate the government’s action against the protesters on Saturday, Nov. 25, and action will be taken against those found responsible.

Six people were killed and over 200 injured during that day’s clashes between security forces and protesters.

“The law enforcement personnel failed to dislodge the protesters during the operation due to a lack of coordination between them or solid support from the government,” a senior police official told Arab News.

The government directed security forces to suspend their operation after protesters took to the streets in different parts of the country, including Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad and Sialkot. This had virtually brought the country to a standstill, resulting in the disruption of public life and economic losses.

The demonstrations and violence across the country have widened fissures within the ruling party with scores of its parliamentarians reconsidering their political future.

Tahir Iqbal Chaudhry, a member of the National Assembly (MNA) from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, told Arab News that the government’s agreement with the protesters cannot be considered a permanent solution to the blasphemy issue, which will continue to haunt the party.

“The PML-N leadership has not been clear on the blasphemy issue, and has not exposed the actual characters behind the conspiracy,” he said.

Iqbal, who claims that more than two dozen other party lawmakers are in touch with him to ditch the PML-N over the latest controversy, said: “We don’t want to contest the next elections on the ticket of a party that is considered close to the Ahmadis.”

Political analyst Dr. Rasul Bakhsh Rais described Monday’s development as a sign of weakness for the ruling party and the state. “The ruling party will see major defections in the coming days as it is fast losing the religious vote,” he predicted.

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