Pakistan sneaks in to protest against demands by ousting Justice Minister after days of riots


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A Muslim protest movement that paralyzed the capital and convulsed the country for days dissolved peacefully on Monday after the government accepted the main demands of the protesters, including the resignation of the embattled minister federal right.

But the role of the powerful Pakistani army in brokering the agreement drew harsh criticism from the Pakistani judiciary, which accused army officials of an "alarming" scope in politics. Some badysts suggested that the army was the real "winner" in the confrontation because it embarrbaded the weak civilian government and improved the image of the armed forces.

Protesters were outraged by an apparent attempt to change a federal election law in a way they believed was insulting the Prophet Muhammad and paved the way for a non-Muslim minority group, the Ahmedis, to enter the political arena completely in a country that is 95 percent Muslim.

The leader of the protest movement, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, said he would cancel his three-week occupation of a motorway exchange outside the capital. A frustrated operation to disrupt demonstrators on Saturday ended in violence and sparked condolence protests across the country, with hundreds injured and at least six people killed in two days.

Rizvi also called on protesters to disperse across the country and called on businesses to reopen. Most of the major cities were closed during the past two days, with protesters flooding the streets, and religious demonstrations held around the clock in dozens of cities and communities.

[How a ‘clerical error’ spiraled into nationwide protests]

The confrontation ended after the night negotiations on Sunday. Rizvi publicly praised the head of the Pakistani army and his aides for acting as "guarantors" of the agreement, which prevented the situation from possibly entering into a national religious uprising.

A long list of demands from Rizvi and his group, the Movement in Service to the Messenger of God, were accepted by the government. This included the dismissal of Justice Minister Zahid Hamid, the release of all detained demonstrators, an official investigation into Saturday's police badault and a public report of who was behind the attempted law change that sparked the protests.

The agreement signed by Rizvi and senior civil servants expressly thanked General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army's chief of staff, for "saving the nation from a great catastrophe."

But even when a sense of normalcy began to return and traffic flowed in the streets had been blocked by stones and protesters holding clubs, the judiciary's criticism of the army's role overshadowed the discussion of religious controversy.

The army is the most powerful institution in Pakistan and has often intervened in civil government. It is believed that the current military leadership does not like the ruling party and its leader, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Some Pakistani observers suggested, without offering evidence, that the army orchestrated religious protests to weaken the party before next year's elections.

[On key Pakistani road, protests replaced vehicles]

At a court hearing in Islamabad on Monday over the protests, a senior judge demanded: "Who is the army to take on the role of mediator?" The judge, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, said that this was "beyond the constitution."

In a ruling, the Islamabad High Court described as "alarming" that a senior army officer had signed the agreement with the protesters and "Very strange" that the document recognized that the Bajwa team played the leading role in the pact.

Rizvi and his followers opposed a new language in the electoral law that weakened the required oath of all candidates, who must swear that they believe Muhammad was the last prophet in Islam. Officials apologized for the "administrative error" and restored the original oath, but the Rizvi group took advantage of the issue to arouse the ire of millions of Pakistani Muslims.

The Messenger of God movement is based on reverence for Muhammad and support for the strict laws against blasphemy. He claims to be peaceful and recently presented candidates for Parliament. But the group also idolized Mumtaz Qadri, a man who killed a provincial governor for defending a woman accused of blasphemy.

Some government officials and others have accused Rizvi of using religion for political gain. Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal also accused foreign "anti-state" actors who want chaos in Pakistan to be behind the protests.

"There was a conspiracy to prove that a nuclear state was failing, the agreement was reached to get the country out of those circumstances," Iqbal said at the hearing. Judge Siddiqui, indirectly criticizing civilian and military leaders, said: "You are destroying the state in your attempt to make others look bad."

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