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Oct 21, 2:14 PM EDT

Anti-government cleric ends protest in Islamabad


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ISLAMABAD (AP) -- A fiery anti-government cleric has ended his 65-day long sit-in protest in Pakistan's capital Islamabad Tuesday.

Tahirul Qadri announced he will now tour major Pakistani cities holding sit-ins and agitating for the launch of a "revolution of the poor."

"This sit-in has achieved its purpose, it has awakened the nation and played its role in the path of revolution," Qadri told thousands of his supporters - many were women and some were in tears.

Soon after Qadri's announcement, his supporters started packing up their camps and hugging one another goodbye.

"We have spent a difficult time here and have established good relationships with each other," said Fauzia Habib.

"Now when we are leaving I am a bit grim but happy too that we have spent time for a good cause," said Habib, a young girl clad in an all-encompassing gown and head scarf.

Qadri and famed cricket star turned politician Imran Khan led tens of thousands of marchers from the eastern city of Lahore to the capital on August 14 - Pakistan's Independence Day.

For months, they have camped out in front of the parliament building, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who they accuse of vote fraud.

Khan maintains he will not end his protest until Sharif resigns. Qadri, despite ending his Islamabad protest, has refuted claims he struck some sort of compromise deal with Sharif's government.

In mid-August when these protests started, it was widely believed among the demonstrators that Sharif would be gone within days - either through resignation or via military takeover. But the army has stayed publicly neutral, despite a deadly August 31 clash between police and protesters that left three protesters dead and hundreds injured.

Later, a group of politicians from opposition parties attempted to mediate the stand-off, but no apparent deal could be struck.

Also Tuesday, an anti-government TV news channel in Pakistan was taken off air for 15 days after a high court ruled that the broadcaster was "maligning" Pakistan's judiciary, the country's media regulation authority said.

The closure is apparently linked to the infighting among Pakistan's numerous media outlets over their coverage of Qadri's protest movement. Most of the media taken up strong positions on either side, providing plenty of fodder for bitter reports and opinionated talk show hosts.

The Pakistan Media Regulation Authority, or PEMRA, said on Tuesday that it was forced to act on a court order and shut down the private ARY News channel. PEMRA also said the court banned one of the channel's anchors, Mubashar Luqman, from appearing on any national television show. ARY was also ordered to pay a fine of 10 million Pakistani rupees, or $97,000.

ARY has taken a distinctly pro-opposition stance in its coverage of the protest rallies; Luqman, the banned anchor, was a prominent participant in the rallies, sometimes appearing in public with Khan during the former cricket star's anti-government speeches outside the parliament.

The high court in the eastern city of Lahore acted on its own in taking up the case - what is known in legal terms as suo moto - and issued its ruling last week.

The CEO of ARY, Ammad Yousuf, criticized the ruling and said the channel would challenge PEMRA's move. "The decision has been taken in haste without giving us a hearing," Yousuf told The Associated Press.

ARY is said to have earned top ratings ever since it took up the popular anti-government cause against its business rival Geo TV, which has long been Pakistan's most popular TV channel.

In June, PEMRA also banned Geo TV for 15 days after a spat between the broadcaster and the military's powerful spy agency, the ISI.

The intelligence agency had filed a suit against Geo TV, seeking its closure after it alleged that the spy agency was behind an assassination attempt against one of the station's anchors, Hamid Mir. Sharif's government backed Geo TV at the time, and the station later sided with Sharif in its coverage of the protest rallies.

After decades of tight control over the media, Pakistan now has a vibrant journalism scene with numerous television channels and newspapers that compete fiercely for readers and viewers. The media have been especially focused on confrontations between Pakistan's executive branch, military and its judiciary.

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Associated Press Writer Asif Shahzad contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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