ISLAMABAD: Hundreds of protesters camping at D-Chowk in the federal capital for the last two days have been given until Wednesday morning to call off their sit-in and disperse or risk stringent action by security agencies.
The deadline was set by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan late Tuesday night as government negotiators made last-ditch efforts to convince hundreds of workers of religious groups to end their Dharna.
The protesters had entered the capital after observing Chehlum of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, in Rawalpindi on Sunday. Qadri was executed on February 29 after he lost an appeal in the Supreme Court against his death sentence.
“If an amicable conclusion is not reached within an hour, then the government will start action in the presence of the media to vacate D-Chowk,” Nisar told journalists. “An inquiry will also be conducted to find out how this crowd managed to enter Islamabad.”
Nisar said the Punjab government had allowed the protesters to observe Qadri’s Chehlum in Rawalpindi and disperse thereafter. “The protesters had agreed verbally and in writing to follow the agreement,” he added.
Some of the Chehlum participants, however, reneged on the agreement, spelled out a charter of demands, and started marching towards Islamabad where they damaged private and public property and clashed with riot police.
“The government has video footage of rioting and violence which will help identify those involved in violence and vandalism,” he said. “Action will be taken against those who took the law into their own hands,” he added.
He clarified the government was not involved in dialogue with the protesters. “Some religious scholars who have travelled from Karachi are negotiating with the protesters,” he added. “The protesters are using aged men and children as a human shield.”
The minister said it was not difficult to launch a crackdown, but the government did not want to use force and wanted the protesters to disperse peacefully. “There are 7,000 security personnel whereas the protesters are 1,400 in numbers.”
Contrary to Nisar’s claim, the government engaged leaders of the protesters in backdoor negotiations through an influential businessman from Karachi.
A delegation, led by Haji Rafiq Pardesi, a close aide to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, Islamabad Assistant Commissioner Kamran Cheema and Shah Owais Noorani, held last round of negotiations with the leaders of the protesters late Tuesday night.
However, they failed to persuade them to end the sit-in. Pardesi had spent at least an hour with the protesters’ leadership, who had earlier announced they would only hold talks with Dar and National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq.
Soon after the departure of Pardesi, vans carrying food were allowed to enter D-Chowk. The food and water supply to the protesters had been cut off since Monday.
Pakistan Sunni Tehreek President Sarwat Ejaz Qadri told The Express Tribune that most probably Raja Zafarul Haq and Dar would be made part of the negotiating team. He refused to share details.
Around 3,000 activists of different religious parties were present at the site on the third day of the protest. In their first press conference at the protest site, the religious parties’ leaders said they would hold negotiations with the government only if the military acted as a guarantor.
Mufti Muhammad Ashraf Asif Jalali, who heads the organisation leading the protesters, said the government had made no serious effort to resolve the matter. In the evening, the Islamabad administration served a notice to the protesters’ leadership, telling them to disperse peacefully within two hours or they would be evacuated forcibly. The notice termed the sit-in ‘illegal due to its proximity’ with sensitive and important buildings of red zone.
20,000 suspects booked
Three district and sessions courts sent over 100 suspects to jail on remand for 14 days on charges of provocation, rioting, assaulting law enforcers and ransacking public and government property during the ongoing protest.
Over 100 suspects of different religious parties were rounded up by the police while around 20,000 other unnamed people have been booked for violating Section 144 inside the red zone.
The police charged the suspects with destroying government and public property, assaulting law enforcers, snatching wireless sets from police and setting containers and other vehicles on fire.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2016.