Islamists call halt to Pakistan protest after government allows vote on French envoy

Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari
·3 min read
FILE PHOTO: Protest by the supporters of the banned Islamist political party Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) in Lahore

By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A banned Pakistani Islamist group called an end to violent nationwide anti-France protests on Tuesday, after the government called a parliamentary vote on whether to expel the French ambassador and said it would halt criminal cases against the group's members.

Pakistan arrested the leader of the group Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) on April 12 and banned the group last week after its members blocked main highways, railways and access routes to major cities, assaulting police and burning public property.

The group has demanded that Pakistan expel the French ambassador in retaliation for the publication in France of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

Four police officers were killed, 11 taken hostage and more than 800 wounded, many seriously, during week-long clashes. The Islamists said three of their members were killed.

Prime Minister Imran Khan warned his nation on Monday that Pakistan risked paying a price if it expelled the French envoy, as half the country's exports are sold to the European Union.

Nevertheless, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad said on Tuesday that the government had agreed "after long negotiations with the TLP" to put a resolution before parliament on whether to expel the ambassador.

All criminal cases registered against the TLP would also be withdrawn as a result of the agreement with the group, which in return would end its protests, the minister said.

The TLP responded by releasing an audio statement of its spokesman Shafiq Amini saying: "It is requested to end protests wherever they are happening across the country."

However there was no immediate sign that crowds were dispersing at the biggest protest, in the city of Lahore, where thousands of followers were gathered outside the group's headquarters.

Later on Tuesday, a resolution calling for a debate on the envoy's expulsion was presented in a specially-convened session of parliament. The government referred the resolution to a committee, and the session was adjourned. Opposition members protested, demanding details of the agreement with the TLP.

The TLP has also demanded the release of its leader and hundreds of arrested staff, the removal of the ban and the dismissal of the interior minister.

Relations between Paris and Islamabad became more strained after President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute late last year to a French teacher who was beheaded by a man of Chechen origin for showing a class on free speech cartoons depicting the Prophet. Many Muslims consider such cartoons blasphemous. Macron maintains that free speech is a fundamental right in France.

At that time, protests broke out in Muslim world, including one led by the Islamists who shut the main highway to Islamabad until Khan's government agreed to endorse a boycott of French products and expel the envoy.

France has already advised its citizens to temporarily leave Pakistan.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, a political analyst, told Reuters the government wanted take the matter of the French envoy's expulsion to the parliament, "so they can say they have consulted with them and whatever step they take has a consensus behind it".

The government's apparent acceptance of the militants' demands would be seen as a victory for the Islamists, said author and analyst Khaled Ahmed.

"The government's retreat from its stance and agreement indicate that none of the institutions can stand against them," he said.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Additional reporting by Umar Farooq in Islamabad and Gibran Peshimam in Karachi; Editing by Kim Coghill, Simon Cameron-Moore, Peter Graff)