ISLAMABAD: A radical Pakistani cleric, who galvanised tens of thousands of followers to march on Islamabad, met Monday with opposition politicians and agreed to continue their sit-in even after a deadline he imposed for the prime minister to resign passed without Imran Khan stepping down.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s followers, many of the students of his religious schools, started out last week from the southern port city of Karachi, marching to Islamabad where they have since camped out on the city’s outskirts for three days.
Rehman accuses Khan of bad governance and demands the government follow radical Islamic laws. Khan has ignored the protesters’ demands, saying he won’t be driven from power. But he has allowed Rahman’s rally to go on, provided it remains in its designated area.
The firebrand cleric delivered a late-night speech Monday before a crowd of thousands, saying the opposition had agreed the sit-in should continue, but that no other action was agreed upon. That includes following through on Rehman’s threats to have protesters march on the so-called Red Zone, which is home to Pakistan’s government, the prime minister’s residence and foreign embassies. Rehman said the opposition would decide when the protest would end.
Authorities have stepped up security in the capital and brought in large shipping containers to block roads and protect the Red Zone.
Bilal Bhutto-Zardari, the co-leader of the left-leaning Pakistan People’s party, once led by the late Benazir Bhutto, has said his party will not join Rehman in the sit-in. While his party supports Rehman’s call for Khan to resign, it is not ready to take part in the sit-in, he said, without elaborating.
Rehman has come under attack by human rights activists who have criticised his fiery speeches as well as his refusal to allow women at his protest march. Even women journalists were barred from the rallies until an outcry forced him to relent.
Rehman’s radical religious schools have provided men for both the Afghan Taliban militant group and the anti-government Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.
In his speeches, Rehman has attacked the minority Ahmadi sect, and Ahmadi homes and places of worship are often targeted by Sunni militants who consider them heretics. There are about half a million Ahmadis in Pakistan, which has a population of 220 million and which declared Ahmadis non-Muslims in 1974.
Rahman has also staunchly defended a controversial blasphemy law that carried a death sentence for anyone found guilty of insulting Islam.