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Islamabad's 'container cleric' strikes a deal

Friday, 18 January 2013 - 9:47am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Pakistani officials struck a deal with a fiery Muslim preacher on Thursday, ending a four-day mass protest in Islamabadl and easing fears that the government could be toppled.

Pakistani officials struck a deal with a fiery Muslim preacher on Thursday, ending a four-day mass protest in Islamabadl and easing fears that the government could be toppled.

The agreement - that elections would be held on time and in accordance with the constitution - was announced after ministers clambered into Tahir-ul-Qadri's armoured shipping container, parked in the centre of the capital, to discuss his demands for electoral reforms.

Dr Qadri launched his political assault on Islamabad on Sunday, bringing more than 20,000 on to the streets to demand that the government be dissolved. The campaign gathered pace on Tuesday when Pakistan's highest court ordered the arrest of Raja Pervez Ashraf, the prime minister, on corruption charges, raising the prospect of a "soft coup".

But with the threat of arrest receding and with rain pounding his supporters, Dr Qadri effectively backed down.

"Tomorrow there will be no sit-in. We have to end it today," he declared from the container parked in Islamabad's main shopping district from where he has masterminded his campaign.

Within the hour, ministers and party leaders climbed a stepladder into the container for negotiations.

A statement issued late yesterday said Dr Qadri's party would have a say in the appointment of a caretaker prime minister, once the election has been called.

Dr Qadri's sudden return home, after spending seven years living in Canada running a Muslim education network, and a well-funded campaign led many to suspect that he was at the heart of a plot to unseat a fragile government.

Conspiracy theories have swept Pakistan since Tuesday, when Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice, ordered the arrest of Ashraf and 15 others for allegedly receiving bribes in a government procurement scandal.

President Asif Ali Zardari has set his heart on the government surviving until March, when it will have completed a full term. Successful elections would mark the first democratic transition of power in the country's history and an impressive legacy for Benazir Bhutto's widower.

That ambition came a step closer in the supreme court yesterday when the head of Pakistan's corruption investigators said he was unable to arrest Ashraf.

Fasih Bokhari, the head of the National Accountability Bureau, said investigations were not complete.

Chief Justice Chaudhry, who three days earlier had ordered him to detain the prime minister, asked him to hand over the case files so that the court could decide whether the evidence merited a prosecution.

The judge, who has frequently been accused of pursuing a vendetta against Zardari and his government, said: "I want to tell you no one is above law."

 




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