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Islamabad protest: Pak govt in crunch talks to avoid bloodshed

While the government is under pressure to end the siege of the protesters, it is also wary of the consequences of a police action which may result in casualties.

world Updated: Nov 19, 2017 23:45 IST
Imtiaz Ahmad
Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times, Islamabad
Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah,Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat,Sunni Tehreek Pakistan
Pakistani activists from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious group block a street during a protest in Islamabad on Saturday. (AFP)

The Pakistani government continued crunch talks with Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and other radical religious groups and requested the courts to extend a deadline for thousands of protestors to clear two busy highways in Islamabad that they have been blocking for over a week.

The newly formed group is holding the sit-in demanding the removal of law minister Zahid Hamid over a change in the country's electoral laws under which a Muslim candidate has to sign a declaration in which the finality of the Prophethood is affirmed. It was earlier proposed that certain sections of this law could be amended but this had led to an angry reaction from religious parties.

Supporters of Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, along with groups like Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan, have been blocking the Islamabad Expressway and Murree Road that connect the capital with its only airport and the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

A clash between police and protestors was averted as interior minister Ahsan Iqbal requested the courts to give them more time to disperse, in the hope of an amicable solution.

“We hope that the crisis will be resolved. Several religious leaders have been involved in the process. We will try to finalise things by tomorrow,” Iqbal said on Saturday night after holding the second round of talks.

The government was expected to go into action on Sunday after the Islamabad High Court gave a deadline to the protestors to end their blockage of one of the city's most important traffic intersections or face government action.

Iqbal appealed to the protest leaders to call off their sit-in, saying parliament had already addressed the issue by restoring the ‘Khatm-e-Nabuwwat declaration’ to its original shape and strengthened it further by also restoring 7b and 7c clauses in the elections law.

A statement issued by the interior ministry said that the issue of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat should not be used for doing politics and making division. He said the country could not afford division, tensions and lawlessness at this time. “Creating hurdles in the movements of the general public is against the teaching of the Holy Prophet (PBUH),” he further stated.

However, a spokesperson for the protest leaders told local media that they had not budged on their demand for removal of law minister Hamid. “The government has shown some flexibility, but we will not end our sit-in unless the law minister is removed from his post,” said Ijaz Ashrafi, the group’s media adviser.

While the government is under pressure to end the siege of the protesters, it is also wary of the consequences of a police action which may result in casualties.

“Already the government has blood on its hands in the Model Town incident where several supporters were killed by the police in a similar action some years back,” recalled political analyst Ayaz Khan, adding, “in these sensitive times, the government does not want a repeat of this situation.”

To diffuse the situation, the government engaged some religious leaders, particularly the Pir of Islamabad’s Golra Sharif shrine for mediation, following which the two sides came to the negotiating table.

Speaking to the media after the second round of the negotiations which continued till midnight on Saturday, the interior minister said the Islamabad High Court had ordered clearing of the area and now pressure was mounting on the government to take some actions. “However, we should avoid violence,” he added.

He said there was no discussion on withdrawing first information reports against protesters in Saturday’s talks. Iqbal said it was not proven that law minister Hamid was involved in changing the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat declaration on the election form.

“The Election Act was prepared in several months and it is not yet clear who was behind the changes,” he added.

Local media reports said that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has been monitoring the situation.

On Friday and Saturday, Abbasi received briefings from the interior minister, religious affairs minister Sardar Yousaf and party secretary Raja Zafarul Haq over standoff between the government and the religious group after the latter refused to accept the order of the High Court to to end the sit-in.

The premier is in favour of giving ‘one last try’ before adopting a decisive course of action, reported a local paper. That is why the government functionaries reached out to clerics from different schools of thought to persuade the protestors to end the sit-in, it added.

First Published: Nov 19, 2017 15:30 IST