ISLAMABAD: Pakistan postpones action against activists
ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan government has temporarily halted action against far-right leaders spearheading a two-week protest in hopes that negotiations will disperse the crowd.
The protesters have paralyzed Islamabad demanding the resignation and punishment of the federal Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid for allegedly altering the declaration of finality of prophethood of Prophet Muhammad for lawmakers — a change already reversed by the government, which called it a clerical error.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal also joined the attempts to quell the protest peacefully. The city’s administration was told early Saturday to stand down for at least 24 hours until further notice so that the religious activists could be removed.
Arab News witnessed a large contingent of combined security forces and intelligence services cordoning the Faiziabad interchange on the main highway between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Shipping containers have cut off most entrances and exits to the cities and commuters are facing severe difficulty.
“A 20-minute drive or less from Islamabad to Rawalpindi took me over 90 minutes,” said Bilal Ahmed, a commuter, to Arab News. Every known route between the two cities has been blocked by security barriers and containers, he added.
The interchange bridge has been the base for activists led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi of Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) since November 8. Several religious parties have joined the movement in just over a week and their strength has grown from roughly a couple of thousand to several thousand, fluctuating daily. Makeshift tents are scattered on the interchange roads and protesters armed with sticks and stones show no signs of budging from their demand.
“The issue is worth sacrificing our lives for,” Hafiz Riaz Hussain, a participant at the sit-in protest, told Arab News. “Apart from the law minister, we want others exposed, involved in making the amendment, and will sit here peacefully till demand of our leadership is met.”
He warned that if the government takes action, it will be responsible for the consequences and protesters have the right to defend themselves.
The interior minister said the protest is unjustified after the electoral bill has been restored to its original form. He said the protesters should adhere to Islamabad’s high court order and leave, a deadline which passed on Saturday morning, raising questions about the government’s delay tactics.
“The government should have resolved this at its inception” instead of waiting till the matter was out of its control, said Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf opposition leader Ali Awan.
“Forced removal isn’t a wise option now. All negotiations between government and protesters should be made public for sake of transparency. Freedom of speech is the protesters’ right but the authorities should have allocated a location for the sit-in,” Awan told Arab News.
A police official not wanting to be named said that talks have failed so far, yet the government has not issued any directives to take action against the religious activists and their leadership. He says it is mulling over the matter but remains perplexed how to resolve it without brute force as the last resort.