Violent protests spur Pakistan to begin talks with banned extremist group

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan supporters at a protest after the party's leader was detained, in Lahore on April 18, 2021.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan supporters at a protest after the party's leader was detained, in Lahore on April 18, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD (BLOOMBERG) - Pakistan has begun talks with an extremist group it banned last week, in a bid to control religious violence that is becoming a major challenge for Prime Minister Imran Khan as he struggles to revive the economy.

Talks between Mr Khan's administration and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamic party that is 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 (April 18), according to a statement by Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed and reports by local media.

Late that night, the proscribed group released 11 police officials it had taken hostage earlier in the day, he said.

Days of rioting prompted Mr Khan's government to ban TLP last Thursday but that did not stop the protests, which call for the expulsion of the French ambassador over remarks by President Emmanuel Macron last year regarding the publication of cartoons ridiculing Prophet Muhammad.

Businesses and shops were partially closed in Karachi, the biggest city, and Lahore on a call by traders' groups to protest against the government action. The benchmark stock exchange fell by as much as 1.5 per cent before recovering some losses.

"The stocks fell because of the political uncertainty caused by the strike and protests," said Mr Hamza Kamal, a senior investment analyst at Karachi-based AKD Securities. "It is weighing negatively on investor's sentiment."

Such protests are damaging Pakistan's image abroad, Mr Khan said in a speech in Islamabad on Monday. The Prime Minister added that he will start a global campaign against blasphemy.

TLP, which partially paralysed 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 protests after Mr 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.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, the top group representing the country's media, is also protesting against a clampdown on coverage of the demonstrations by the 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 the protests.

The South Asian nation has just reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund on the resumption of a US$6 billion (S$8 billion) bailout programme.

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.