D-Chowk protesters end sit-in after successful talks

Protest leaders, interior minister give conflicting account of agreement


Protesters leave after a four-day-long Dharna in the capital’s red zone following successful talks. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD/ LAHORE/ KARACHI:


Hundreds of protesters camping in the capital end their four-day-long sit-in Wednesday evening after claiming the government has agreed to their key demands, including an assurance the country’s blasphemy laws will not be amended.


Conversely, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan denied any deal was struck with the protesters. Instead he claimed that the demonstrators called off their Dharna “on their own accord”.

The protesters had stormed the red zone in Islamabad on Sunday in support of Mumtaz Qadri, the executed killer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, and laid siege to important installations.

Damage to public property by pro-Qadri supporters estimated at Rs150 million

The protesters, who initially gathered in Rawalpindi to mark the Chehlum of Qadri, turned violent as they marched towards the capital, setting fire to vehicles and public and private property en route.

They clashed with riot police, prompting the government to call in the army. The protesters numbered around 25,000 at their peak, but their numbers thinned out by the time they camped at D-Chowk.

Late Tuesday night, the interior minister gave the protesters until 10am on Wednesday to call off their sit-in and disperse peacefully or risk stringent action from security forces.

The deadline passed but the protesters stayed put, while negotiators scuttled between the two sides to avoid use of force and work out a peaceful end to the problem.

By the evening, the two sides reached a six-point agreement, and subsequently the protesters ended the sit-in.

According to the agreement, the government will not amend the blasphemy laws, specifically Section 295-C; release non-violent protesters who were arrested during the last four days; withdraw all FIRs registered against leaders of the protesters; show no mercy to those currently imprisoned on blasphemy charges; remove those religious scholars from the fourth schedule whose names had been included without evidence; and the government will consider recommendations related to implementation of Nizam-e-Mustafa.

Operation to disperse D-Chowk protesters will be initiated tomorrow: Nisar

The government had rejected an earlier 10-point charter of demands spelled out by the religious leaders. After Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s reported intervention, the government formally opened talks with the protesters on Tuesday.

The leaders and the government held talks at the Punjab House and reached the agreement.

However, none of the government’s ministers, who participated in the final talks, signed the six-point agreement. Instead, the agreement bore only signatures of religious leaders and those of negotiators.

When the religious leaders and mediators returned to the protest venue Wednesday evening following negotiations, the protesters raised slogans. Soon, however, the leaders announced that they had reached an agreement with the government and the crowd dispersed. The Islamabad administration provided 10 buses to facilitate travel for protesters who had arrived from other cities.

Nisar refutes deal talks

The interior minister, however, dismissed any talks of a deal with the protesters. “Neither the government has signed any agreement nor did it authorise any individual to negotiate on the government’s behalf.”

“The issue was completely dealt by representatives of the city administration,” he claimed adding that some ‘respectable individuals’ had negotiated a safe exit for the visitors.

Protest inside red zone turns into a sit-in

He added that the 1,070 protesters detained by the Islamabad Police and those who attacked law enforcement officials and destroyed public and private properties worth Rs150 million would be brought to justice.

Sit-in ends in Karachi

As the protests ended in Islamabad, the Ittehad-e-Ahle Sunnat also called off their sit-in in Karachi and cleared Numaish Chowrangi on MA Jinnah Road.

“We held a peaceful protest in Karachi. We did not take law into our hands. Now after successful negotiations, we ended our protest on the instructions of our leaders,” said Fahim Shaikh, a leader of the Pakistan Sunni Tehreek who was leading the sit-in.

Lahore protests end

Workers of religious groups who were blocking the road at Data Darbar to show solidarity with protesters in Islamabad also ended their protest.

The protests, led by Tahafuz Namoos-e-Risalat Mahaz leader Sahibzada Raza-i-Mustafa Naqashbandi, ST leader Mujahid Abdul Rasool, Molana Muhammad Ali Naqashbandi and Allama Zulfiqar Mustafa Hashmi had managed to block the road for vehicular traffic for over four hours. It forced traffic coming from Ravi Road to be diverted towards Station from Minar-e-Pakistan and from Kuchehri to Outfall Road.

 

Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2016.

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