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October 23, 2014

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Pakistan opens murder case against cleric

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani authorities have opened a murder investigation against an anti-government cleric after a police officer was killed in clashes with the cleric's supporters, a top Pakistani official said Sunday.

The clashes and murder investigation are part of escalating tensions in Pakistan where two high-profile figures — the cleric and cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan — have called for the government's ouster. Both are calling for a march on the capital Islamabad on Thursday, vowing to bring thousands of people into the streets and throw the government into crisis.

The cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, is from Pakistan but also spends time in Canada. He has a network of mosques and religious schools across Pakistan with thousands of followers. Last year his followers camped out in the center of the capital for three days, in a protest demanding electoral reforms ahead of the May national election.

His call for a military-backed transitional government at the time raised questions about whether he was backed by the country's powerful military, charges Qadri has denied. He returned from Canada in June this year, vowing to lead a revolution to topple the government.

The murder investigation stems from clashes Friday and Saturday during which Qadri's supporters battled with police. The supporters were on their way to a rally held Sunday in Lahore, the provincial capital.

Qadri's supporters say eight of his followers were killed in the violence while authorities said two people, including one police officer, died.

Rana Mashhood, the provincial minister of Punjab province, said authorities opened the case against Qadri on Sunday, based on recordings of him and media reports in which Mashhood said the cleric incited people to violence.

A spokesman for Qadri, Shahid Mursaleen, dismissed the case, saying that the government was trying to pressure Qadri to drop his protest.

"They are trying everything to stop him," he said.

Under the Pakistani legal system, authorities must first register or open a case before they can arrest a person although it doesn't necessarily mean an arrest would follow.

During the rally, Qadri called on thousands of his followers to march on the capital on Thursday, in a bid to oust the government. Khan has vowed to bring hundreds of thousands of his supporters into the streets on the same day, which is Pakistan's independence day.

The government has been scrambling to deal with the double challenge posed by Qadri and Khan. They've brought in shipping containers to close off sections of Islamabad. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said he's ready to negotiate with Khan, who alleges that the nationwide election last year was widely rigged and is demanding a new vote.

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