ISLAMABAD - Hundreds of Islamist activists who had been occupying a busy crossing for a fourth consecutive day in the heart of the Pakistani capital dispersed peacefully on Wednesday after government representatives persuaded them to end their demonstration.
The group was protesting last month’s execution of a man who assassinated a provincial governor for raising his voice in favor of reforms in the country’s blasphemy laws.
Supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, who killed Salman Taseer in 2011 while he was governing the country’s most populous province of Punjab, were refusing to leave Islamabad until their demands were met, which included assurances the government will not allow amendments to the blasphemy laws.
Rally leaders told reporters they were ending the protest after receiving assurances there would be no changes in the blasphemy laws and hundreds of detained protesters not wanted on other charges would by released immediately.
But Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan dismissed reports of any deal with the demonstrators and told reporters the government had not accepted any of the demands. He went on to assert that those involved in violent attacks on government property and police personnel during the rally would be prosecuted.
The demonstrators also demanded the hanging of a Christian woman whom the slain governor had defended against blasphemy allegations.
The sit-in protest near the Pakistani parliament had disrupted routine business activities in the capital city. Authorities had switched off all Islamabad cellphone services and blocked roads to prevent others from trying to join the protest from other parts of Pakistan.
The demonstration coincided on Sunday with a massive suicide bombing in the eastern city of Lahore that targeted Easter celebrations at a public park. The attack left more than 70 people dead, many of them Christians, and wounded 300 more.
When the attack happened, the pro-Qadri rally had begun its march toward Islamabad from the neighboring city of Rawalpindi. The protesters marched through the capital, leaving a trail of destruction before finally settling into the sit-in demonstration near the parliament late Sunday night.
Police used teargas and rubber bullets to break up the gathering, prompting clashes with protesters that wounded several security personnel.
Authorities estimated the rampage caused massive damage to the Metro Bus infrastructure, used by tens of thousands of people, mostly government employees, to travel daily between the two cities.
Skeptics severely criticized the government’s handling of the crisis from the outset and its claims of countering religious extremism in the country.
It was surprising that such a large and violent crowd easily managed to reach the federal capital from Rawalpindi, observed the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
"It is a matter of inquiry whether that was made possible because of any supporters among the ranks of the police tasked with stopping the protesters or plain incompetence of the administration," it said.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama telephoned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to extend condolences on behalf of the people of the United States on the Lahore bombing and requested the Pakistani leader to convey his feelings to the affected families, according to a statement Sharif's office issued.
Obama praised Pakistan's counterterrorism efforts and said that the people of the United States are with the government and the people of Pakistan in this tragic moment.
Prime Minister Sharif was due to visit Washington and lead the Pakistani delegation in a two-day nuclear security summit starting from Thursday but he canceled the trip in the wake of the Lahore attack.