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Pakistan strikes deal with Islamist protestors in Islamabad

ISLAMABAD >> Pakistan’s government struck a deal today with leaders of a fundamentalist Islamist protest movement, saying that the country’s law minister would step down in return for an end to demonstrations that had brought violent clashes and paralyzed the Pakistani capital for weeks.

The embattled law minister, Zahid Hamid, whom protesters had accused of blasphemy, resigned as part of negotiations overseen by Pakistan’s military, officials said.

Public anger over the protest’s disruption of Islamabad, the capital, had been growing by the day, and the agreement was widely seen as another in a string of capitulations by the government to religious extremists who command growing popularity in Pakistan.

The agreement Monday was hashed out after violent clashes between the protesters — from a hard-line religious party belonging to the Barelvi sect of Islam — and police officers. The party’s leader, the cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, had rallied thousands of supporters near one of the main entrances to Islamabad, disrupting traffic for more than two weeks.

An attempt by the governing party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, to clear out the protest site earlier Saturday ended in deadly clashes, with at least six protesters killed and more than 200 people injured.

The government was forced to suspend the operation, but violence quickly spilled over to other parts of the country, especially in Punjab province, the most important political base for the governing party. The law minister’s house there was attacked, and several other party figures also came under pressure.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi met with Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, to discuss the crisis. The army chief said his troops would not use force to stop the protests, but agreed to safeguard important buildings around the capital, military officials said.

The Barelvi party’s protest started over proposed changes to the oath taken by incoming lawmakers, including altering the language that declared the Prophet Muhammad as God’s final prophet.

Rizvi and other hard-line clerics said the changes, under the supervision of Hamid, the law minister, resulted in blasphemy, which is listed under the country’s laws as a capital offense. Even isolated accusations of blasphemy have led to lynchings or mob violence, and Rizvi has frequently used the issue to whip up outrage at sermons and party rallies.

The law minister denied the charge, releasing a video in which he stated that he personally believed that Muhammad was God’s final prophet, and the government quickly dropped the proposed changes to the oath. But the efforts to placate Rizvi and several other religious leaders failed, and demonstrations began three weeks ago.

The agreement signed in the early hours of this morning called for an immediate removal of the law minister. In turn, religious leaders assured that they would not issue an edict against him — apparently to ensure that the minister did not come under further attacks; blasphemy accusations have often led to killings of the accused. The agreement called for the release of all workers and supporters of Rizvi’s party apart from asking the government to pay for the damages to public property.

One particularly telling part of the agreement was a note of gratitude to Bajwa, the army chief, who was thanked for “saving the country from a big catastrophe.” In some circles, the military has been criticized as being too tolerant, or even supportive, of extreme Islamist groups.

Maj. Gen. Faiz Hamid, director general of the counterintelligence wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the country’s powerful spy agency, signed the agreement as representative of the army chief.

Later Monday, roadblocks and barriers were removed from Islamabad’s highways and connecting roads after Rizvi addressed a news conference and called off the protest. Sanitary workers began to remove debris from the area where the protesters were camped.

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