Pakistan’s law minister resigned on Monday as the embattled civilian government bowed to demands from a small Islamist group whose anti-blasphemy protest in the capital has fuelled deadly violence and sparked demonstrations across the nuclear-armed nation.
Protest leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi called off the sit-in after state media reported minister Zahid Hamid’s resignation early on Monday. Rizvi said he had military assurances that the demands of his Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLY) group would be met.
“On the assurance of the Chief of Army Staff, we are calling off the sit-in,” he told a crowd of around 2,500 demonstrators, adding that his group was abandoning plans to issue a fatwa against Hamid and was calling for roads and schools to be reopened.
There was no immediate confirmation from the government of the resignation and no comment from the military.
The decision to capitulate to the protesters’ demands is a major embarrassment for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) as it eyes elections in 2018, analysts said, and underscores the influence of religious groups in the nuclear-armed country of 207 million.
Rizvi’s previously obscure group has been calling for weeks for Hamid’s ousting over a hastily-abandoned amendment to the oath which election candidates must swear. It has occupied a main highway into Islamabad since November 6 and virtually paralysed the capital.
The protesters have linked the amended wording to blasphemy — a highly contentious charge in Muslim Pakistan which carries the death penalty. Even unproven allegations have spurred mob lynchings and murders.
Monday’s announcement came after Saturday’s botched operation to disperse the demonstrators sparked violence in Islamabad that left at least seven people dead and hundreds wounded.
It fuelled the spread of the protests and blockades to major cities across the country including Karachi and Lahore.
The government ordered police and paramilitaries to stand down after the clashes and called on the army to intervene to restore order. By Monday morning there still had been no official response from the military.
As he called off the sit-in, Rizvi referred to what he said was the text of an army-brokered agreement between TLY and the government, though the document could not be verified with officials or the military.
“We all now need to heal the fault lines that dharna (sit-in) has invoked on religious & sectarian basis & ensure it doesn’t reoccur. It is a priority,” tweeted Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, without further details.