ISLAMABAD - A controversial deal the government in Pakistan struck with an Islamist group Monday has forced the federal law minister out of office and eased angry demonstrations that claimed several lives and had for weeks paralyzed the national capital.
Thousands of activists of the radical Tehreek-e-Labaik party led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi earlier this month had blocked the main entrance to Islamabad and refused to disperse unless the government ousted Law Minister Zahid Hamid for allegedly committing blasphemy.
The government led by the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party dismissed the demand and ordered a police crackdown on Saturday to clear the protest site in the face of growing public pressure against the siege.
The action resulted in clashes with demonstrators, in which seven people died and nearly 200 others were wounded.
In reaction, Rizvi's supporters took to the streets in other major Pakistani cities, blocking roads and motorways, with some carrying out attacks on houses of federal ministers, including that of Hamid.
The spillover of violence to the rest of Pakistan forced authorities to suspend the police crackdown and enter into negotiations with rally leaders.
The agreement the two sides concluded early Monday called for the immediate removal of Minister Hamid and bound the government to release all detained activists and pay for any damage to public property.
Critics have denounced the government for giving in to the demands of the Islamist group, saying it will encourage extremism in the country.
One part of the controversial agreement has particularly raised many eyebrows in Pakistan as it credited army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and his representative team for their "special efforts" to negotiate the deal.
"We are thankful to him [Gen Bajwa] for saving the nation from a big catastrophe," said the document bearing signatures, among others, of the country's interior minister and and a major-general rank officer of the country's main spy agency, ISI, who signed the deal on behalf of Bajwa.
Criticized as appeasement
The chairman of the Pakistani Senate was outraged at the controversial deal. Raza Rabbani slammed the government for not consulting parliament on an issue of national importance.
"The magnitude of the issue is such that your law minster had to resign, but the prime minister goes abroad that very day. Is the Riyadh summit more important or what has happened internally in this country more important," he inquired from the deputy interior minister during a debate on the matter.
Pakistani rights activist Tahira Abdullah denounced the deal as a cause for "grave alarm and outrage." This "agreement" she lamented, is an "abdication of state authority, along with the abdication of the state's obligation and responsibility under the constitution.
"A sad day when the state surrendered to the extremists. Now there is no stopping of those bigots," tweeted senior Pakistani journalist, Zahid Hussain, who has authored books on rise of extremism in the country.
A sad day when the state surrendered to the extremists. Now there is no stopping of those bigots.— zahid Hussain (@hidhussain) November 27, 2017
The allegations against the Pakistani law minister stemmed from amendments in the wording of oath taken by incoming lawmakers that protesters maintained amounted to blasphemy for undermining the fundamental Muslim proclamation of Mohammad as the last prophet of Islam.
The government blamed the changes on a clerical error and promptly restored the original wording under pressure from allies and opposition parties in the parliament. But the protesters would not agree on anything less than the removal of the law minister for even tabling the controversial bill in the parliament.
The only significant concession the government received from Rizvi was an assurance the group would not issue an edict to provoke attacks against the minister after he stepped down.
While announcing Monday's deal to his supporters, Rizvi asked them to pack up soon after their detained activists are released so they could go back to the eastern city of Lahore, where the group is headquartered. He also personally thanked the Pakistan army chief for facilitating his group's agreement with the government.
"The panicked PML-N government has entirely appeased and ceded ground to the militant jihadi extremist forces, and has even agreed to most of their outrageous and illegal demands, thereby losing whatever moral high ground it held," noted Abdullah.