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Pakistani Islamists await deadline set for PM Imran Khan to resign

Tens of thousands of Islamists continued a sit-in in a protest camp in the heart of Islamabad.

Supporters of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party wait for their leaders during an anti-government march, in Islamabad, Pakistan (Anjum Naveed/AP)
Supporters of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party wait for their leaders during an anti-government march, in Islamabad, Pakistan (Anjum Naveed/AP)

By Zarar Khan, Associated Press

Tens of thousands of Islamists waited at a massive protest camp in Pakistan’s capital on Sunday as the deadline set by their leader for the prime minister to resign approached.

Authorities in Islamabad strengthened security around the camp as the protest entered its third day, including walls of shipping containers blocking roads leading into and out of the protest area, as well as deploying riot police and paramilitary forces.

Firebrand cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman led a caravan of supporters to Islamabad last week in a bid to pressure Imran Khan to step down, calling him an “illegitimate” ruler.

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Radical cleric and leader of Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Maulana Fazlur Rehman waves to supporters during an anti-government march in Islamabad (Anjum Naveed/AP)

He claims the 2018 election that brought Mr Khan to power was rigged, and has implied – without naming names – that Pakistan’s powerful army supported Mr Khan. The military denies the allegations, saying it remains impartial.

Mr Rehman, who heads the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, has agreed with authorities that the protesters will not leave the government-designated area.

But he has also hinted that he could lead a march on the Red Zone, the seat of Pakistan’s government, to force Mr Khan’s resignation. The prime minister says he has no plans to quit.

It is unclear what Mr Rehman’s next move will be once his deadline expires on Sunday evening.

Negotiations to defuse the stand-off were taking place between members of Mr Khan’s government and opposition politicians.

Authorities have said they will not try to stop the protests as long as they remain in the designated area, which stretches over a mile along a highway and into an open area.

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Supporters of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party walk on a section of road closed for an anti-government march, in Islamabad, Pakistan (Anjum Naveed/AP)

Some protesters in the all-male encampment seemed prepared for a long stay, and had even begun turning the shipping containers into living spaces.

“I want the government to bring more of these containers, they’re now serving as our little homes here, as the weather is getting colder every night,” said Gul Aman, a protester from the western Baluchistan province. Others were seen cooking meals and washing clothes outside their tents on Sunday.

Several thousand volunteers dressed in head-to-toe yellow uniforms have been handling security, according to protest organisers. Many supporters also carried the black and white striped flag of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party.

Mr Rehman had attempted to ban female journalists from accessing the camp, but was forced to reverse his decision after sparking outrage on social media.

The hardline cleric has campaigned for regressive legislation targeting women, and opposed legislation to eliminate of violence against women. He has also refused to allow women members of his party to participate in the demonstration.

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Authorities have placed shipping containers on a main road leading to the Red Zone government areas in Islamabad to restrict traffic due to anti-government marches (Anjum Naveed/AP)

The mass rally comes after Pakistani businesses observed a nationwide strike last week against recently enacted taxes, which the opposition says were imposed as part of the International Monetary Fund’s 6 billion dollar (£ billion) bailout package for Pakistan.

A report by the World Economic Forum released last month says Pakistan ranks 110th on the international organisation’s annual Global Competitiveness Index.

The report said Pakistan’s 2019 ranking dropped three places due to poor performance in key areas of press freedoms, governance, innovation, corruption, life expectancy, productivity and human development.

PA

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