Protests Spur Pakistan to Talk With Extremist Group It Banned
(Bloomberg) -- Pakistan has begun talks with an extremist group it banned last week, in a bid to control religious violence that’s becoming a major challenge for Prime Minister Imran Khan as he struggles to revive the economy.
Talks between Khan’s administration and Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan, an Islamic party that’s demanding the expulsion of the French envoy, are ongoing after violent protests in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, killed at least three people on Sunday, according to a statement by Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed and reports by the local media. Late night, the proscribed group released 11 police officials it had taken hostage earlier in the day, he said.
Pakistan cannot afford to expel the French ambassador as it will amount to severing ties with the European Union, Khan said at a televised speech. Such protests will hurt the country economically, he said and added he will start a global campaign against blasphemy.
Days of rioting prompted Khan’s government to ban TLP on Thursday but that didn’t stop the protests called to expel the French ambassador over remarks by President Emmanuel Macron last year regarding the publication of cartoons ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Businesses and shops were partially closed in Karachi, the biggest city, and Lahore on call by traders’ groups to protest against the government action and the benchmark stock exchange fell as much as 1.5% before recovering some losses.
“The stocks fell because of the political uncertainty caused by the strike and protests,” Hamza Kamal, a senior investment analyst at the Karachi-based AKD Securities Ltd., said. “It is weighing negatively on investor’s sentiment.”
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The TLP, which first partially paralyzed the country with violent protests three years ago and forced the then law minister to resign, emerged as a strong political force when it finished sixth in the 2018 national elections with 2.2 million votes.
Last year, it called off its protest after Khan’s government agreed to seek Parliament’s approval to expel the French ambassador. Last week, the group held nationwide protests that resulted in the death of two policemen.
Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the top group representing the country’s media, is also protesting a clamp down on coverage of protests by Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. The government on Friday suspended social media services including Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter for four hours in an unprecedented move aimed at countering fallout from protests.
The South Asian nation has just reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on resumption of a $6 billion bailout program. Having averted a financial crisis just two years ago, Pakistan finds itself with little room for policy errors as the Covid-19 pandemic weighs on the economy.
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