ISLAMABAD: Protesters from a hitherto little known religious group blocked the main highway into Islamabad for the sixth day running on Monday, virtually locking down the national capital and causing commuter fury as authorities hesitated to act.
The roughly 2,000 protesters are demanding the resignation of the federal law minister over a hastily-abandoned amendment to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.
They have camped for nearly a week on a flyover in Faizabad which connects Islamabad with the neighbouring garrison city of Rawalpindi, along which thousands of people commute every day to work in the capital.
Young men armed with clubs are searching anyone approaching the protest site and refusing to let vehicles pass, pelting those who come near with stones.
“I have been stuck up on the road for (the) last one and a half hours because of this mess,” said Adnan Iqbal, an employee of a pharmaceutical firm who spoke to AFP from the traffic jam where he was late for work.
The protesters, members of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan, acted after the government introduced an amendment which changed some wording in the blasphemy law.
The change — from “I believe” to “I solemnly swear” — did not alter the law, which carries the death penalty. The government has said the change was made inadvertently and quickly reversed it through another amendment.
People face trouble in reaching their destinations. PHOTO: AGENCIES/EXPRESS
But the group insisted it was an attempt to water down the hugely sensitive legislation.
“The protesters have baseless demands. Authorities should deal (with) them with force and move them away from the road,” said Fayyaz Hussain, another commuter who had been struggling to reach his office for two hours on Monday.
Authorities were shying away from employing force despite the palpable anger of commuters and days of traffic delays. “Use of force is no option at the moment,” senior Islamabad official Shoaib Ali told AFP, adding that the priority was negotiations.
Protesters, meanwhile, vowed to stay put. “Either the minister resigns or we are killed or arrested: we will not leave this place,” Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, one of the group’s leaders, told AFP at the protest site.
Blasphemy is a highly contentious issue in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, state owned news agency, APP, reported that TLYR also forced the administration to limit the service of Metro Bus between twin cities and private inter-city transport service at Faizabad Bus Terminal.
The protestors have blocked all roads leading to Faizabad Interchange by placing barricades and commuters are facing problems. Heavy contingent of police along with Rangers and other law enforcement agencies, deployed to maintain law and order situation, are showing maximum restraint and trying to resolve the issue through dialogue.
The roads blocked by the protestors include IJP Road, Islamabad Expressway, Murree Road and service roads. Some commuters are using alternative routes to reach their destinations while others remain stuck in traffic.
Meanwhile, huge traffic jams in different parts of city are posing problems to commuters and pedestrians as traffic is being diverted towards Chak Shehzad, Lehtrar Road in Islamabad and Double Road in Rawalpindi.
When contacted, ITP spokesman said that extra personnel have been deployed at various points to facilitate the road users and to control traffic. He said commuters could use Peshawar Road, Murree Road and Double Road to reach Islamabad while those heading towards Airport or Koral Road may use the Lehtrar Road.
The district administrations Islamabad has also chalked out a plan to avert any untoward incident and block the entry of the rally in the federal capital, especially in the Red Zone. Heavy contingents of police, Rangers and Frontier Constabulary have been deployed in the Red Zone as well as various other parts of the city.
(with Additional input by APP)
Published in The Express Tribune, November 14th, 2017.