Pakistani gov’t sits at table with cleric

Pakistani gov’t sits at table with cleric

Pakistani gov’t sits at table with cleric

Supporters of cleric Muhammad Tahirul Qadri shout slogans as they listen to him speaking while standing in the rain on the fourth day of protests in Islamabad. REUTERS photo

Pakistan’s coalition government opened talks yesterday with a Muslim cleric whose calls for the administration to resign have electrified thousands of protestors camped out near Parliament.

A spokesman for the cleric, Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, said a 10-member delegation was holding discussions to defuse a political crisis that erupted after he led a convoy of buses carrying thousands of protesters into the capital on Jan. 14.

Qadri, who supported a 1999 military coup, is calling for the immediate resignation of the government and the installation of a caretaker administration in the run-up to elections due in the next few months.

Final ultimatum hours before meeting

Hours before the meeting began; Qadri issued what he called a final warning to the government as supporters listened to his latest speech during heavy rain in the heart of the capital, where some have set up large tents. “Now I give an ultimatum that the president and his team must come for dialogue in one and a half hours and it’s the last peaceful offer to them,” said Qadri, who returned home from Canada a few weeks ago and became a media sensation with calls for a new political landscape.
“Today is the last day of our sit-in. Tomorrow, we will act with a new strategy.” He did not elaborate. Although Qadri kept up the pressure, Pakistan’s government felt some relief after the chief of the state’s anti-corruption agency rejected a Supreme Court order on Jan. 15 to arrest the prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.

The Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Ashraf in connection with alleged kickbacks in transactions involving rental power plants when he served as power minister.

Qadri’s appearance at the forefront of Pakistan’s political scene has fuelled speculation that the army, with its long history of involvement in politics, has tacitly endorsed his campaign in order to pile more pressure on a government it sees as inept and corrupt. Qadri and the military deny this.