Pakistan army's role in focus as Islamists end blasphemy blockade

By REUTERS
November 28, 2017 10:20
1 minute read.
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ISLAMABAD - When hardline Pakistani Islamists signed an agreement with the government on Monday to end a crippling blockade of the nation's capital, the text of their deal concluded by thanking the army chief who it said had "saved the nation from a big catastrophe."

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

Seven people had been killed and nearly 200 wounded in an unsuccessful police-led operation to clear the Islamist protesters, who accused a government minister of blasphemy.

Instead of sending in troops, General Bajwa requested a meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqi Abbasi on Sunday. The next day, the government capitulated and met most of the Islamists' demands, including the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid, who stood down.

A High Court judge issued an order on Monday demanding the government explain why the military had helped negotiate the deal. Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui said the army appeared to be overstepping its constitutional role, which requires it to "act in aid of civilian government when called upon to do so."

Critics worry the military may be meddling in politics - always a concern in a country where the army has repeatedly seized power - rather than simply following the orders of the civilian administration.

"The job of the military is to be subservient to the government's orders," said political analyst Zahid Hussain. "The military's role as facilitator has raised many questions."

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

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

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