The role of the Pakistani army in the spotlight as Islamists puts an end to the blockade of blasphemy


ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – When hardline Pakistani Islamists signed an agreement with the government on Monday to end the blockade of the nation's capital, the text of their agreement concluded by thanking the army chief who said he had "saved the nation from a great catastrophe."

A police prison van, destroyed during the clashes, is pulled from the road a day after the Islamist political party Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan suspended the nationwide protests in Islamabad, Pakistan on November 28, 2017. REUTERS / Faisal Mahmood

The effusive praise for the role of General Qamar's mediator Javed Bajwa has aroused some concern among moderate politicians and criticism from a judge in Islamabad, where 36 hours earlier the civilian government had called the army to restore order after the police confronted the entrenched Islamists.

Seven people were killed and nearly 200 wounded in an unsuccessful operation led by police to clean up Islamist protesters, who accused a government blasphemy minister.

Instead of sending troops, General Bajwa requested a meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqi Abbasi on Sunday. The next day, the government capitulated and satisfied most of the demands of the Islamists, including the resignation of the Minister of Justice, Zahid Hamid, who resigned.

A Superior Court judge issued an order on Monday demanding that the government explain why the military helped negotiate the agreement. Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui said the army appeared to be surpbading its constitutional role, requiring it to "act in support of the civilian government when asked to do so."

Critics fear that the military can meddle in politics, always concerned in a country where the military has repeatedly taken power, instead of simply following the orders of the civil administration.

"The work of the military must be subordinated to the orders of the government," said political badyst Zahid Hussain. "The role of the military as a facilitator has raised many questions."

A spokesman for the ruling party said the army and government had acted in consultation and said the army was not opposed to government orders. No evidence has emerged that contradicts that account. The army itself did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Zahid said he was resigning "to get the country out of a crisis situation," according to the state news channel PTV.


Tehreek-e-Labaik, a newly formed ultra-religious party that has turned its punishing blasphemy into its main campaign cry, had blocked main roads in Islamabad for almost three weeks, demanding the dismissal of the Justice minister.

Blamed the minister for an adjustment in the drafting of an electoral law that changed a religious oath proclaiming Muhammad the last prophet of Islam with the words "I believe", a change that the party says is tantamount to blasphemy. The government reduced the problem to an administrative error and quickly changed the language.

Insulting the Prophet of Islam is punishable by death under Pakistani law, and accusations of blasphemy provoke emotions that are almost impossible to defend.

A man pbades in front of a police prison van destroyed during clashes between police and protesters a day after the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan canceled the national protests in Islamabad, Pakistan on 28 November 2017. REUTERS / Faisal Mahmood [19659016] Last week, the Islamabad High Court had ordered the government to withdraw the demonstrators, but not to use firearms.

A Saturday cleanup operation quickly turned into chaos, with protesters armed with iron bars and stones fighting the police until they were paralyzed and scores on each side were hospitalized, after which the government he called the army.

In an order issued at a follow-up hearing on Monday, Judge Siddiqui said it appeared that the "role badumed by the high command of the army is in addition to the constitution" and "beyond its mandate."

The judge said it was "alarming" that Major General Faiz Hameed had signed the agreement as a mediator. Hameed is a senior member of the powerful inter-service intelligence agency in charge of the fight against terrorism, confirmed two senior military officers.

The ruling party official Jan Achakzai confirmed that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and army chief General Bajwa had met on Sunday, but said the process was advisory and did not constitute military interrogation orders.

"The army … suggested to the government to resolve it through negotiations," Achakzai said, adding that the government, after deliberations, ordered the Interior Ministry to comply with the demands of the protesters to prevent further violence.

"It affected the whole country," he said, adding that the government had ceded "in the interest of peace and the maintenance of law and order."

The leader of Tehreek-e-Labaik, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, gave his version of the role of the army to end the confrontation at a press conference on Monday.

"So the general was personally interested and sent his team, saying 'we will become the guarantors and we will comply with their demands'," said Rizvi. "So we said, that's fine, that's what we want."

The army press department did not answer questions about the Rizvi account.

Tensions between the military and the ruling party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have occasionally come to light.

Sharif had rejected last year a plan presented by the army to "incorporate" some hardline Islamist groups into politics, government sources previously told Reuters, including a forerunner of Tehreek-e-Labaik.

The Islamist party has denied having any link with the army and the military declined at that time to comment on the report.

Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Written by Kay Johnson; Edited by Alex Richardson

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