Islamabad protest deadlock

STAND-OFF: Activists from the
Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool
Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious
group gather on a blocked flyover
during a protest in Islamabad
STAND-OFF: Activists from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious group gather on a blocked flyover during a protest in Islamabad

AN ISLAMABAD court warned authorities on Monday (20) to obey its order to shut down a protest by a little-known hardline religious group, which has sparked widespread anger by virtually bringing the capital to a halt for two weeks.

The Islamabad high court said it would hold officials in contempt if they did not launch a crackdown, as enraged commuters called for the roads to be opened and critics accused the government of creating a dangerous precedent by failing to take a tough stance.

Roughly 2,000 protesters from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan group have blocked a main highway used by thousands of commuters since November 6, caus­ing hours-long traffic snarls.

The government insisted on negotiating with the dem­onstrators, who are a small group by Pakistani standards, even after the court issued an order for the roads to be cleared by last Saturday (11).

“This is a very serious situation,” a written statement from the court said on Monday. It blasted the lack of pro­gress as “beyond comprehension” and said the suffering of citizens had reached its limit. The protesters are demand­ing the resignation of federal law minister Zahid Hamid over a hastily-abandoned amendment to the oath election candidates must swear.

Demonstrators have linked it to blasphemy – a highly contentious issue in Pakistan – and claim the oath was sof­tened to enable the participation of Ahmadis, a long perse­cuted Islamic minority sect.

Interior minister Ahsan Iqbal insisted negotiations would continue. “We want to resolve this issue immedi­ately and peacefully. Pakistan cannot afford any unrest,” he told reporters in Islamabad on Monday.

Protesters at the demonstration, where young men armed with clubs are refusing to let vehicles pass and at times pelt­ing those who come near with stones, were defiant.

“We are here until he resigns, we will not go,” said Pir Muhammad Ijaz Ashrafi, a spokesman for the party, warn­ing that if the government acted against them it would “not survive”.

Others warned if the government does move to disperse the protesters, rallies could spread throughout the country.

Analysts said authorities had bungled their response and created an unhelpful precedent.

“This was a regular protest, attended by a very small crowd. However, the government dragging its feet, turning it into a protracted engagement, has given it a lot more weight than it needed,” said Zeeshan Salahuddin, of the Center for Research and Security Studies.

He added that “anytime anyone is upset with the govern­ment, the capital may be choked and the government will bend its knees”.

Retired general Talat Masood said the response had been “spineless”.

“If they continue with this situation, (the protesters’) demands will keep on increasing, which is very dangerous,” he said.

Columnist Zahid Hussain said the fears of violence were overblown. “There is a false sense of fear that the situation can get out of control,” he said.

“The government should set up a writ and take action against them. It should not have been allowed to come to this stage.” (AFP)