Pakistani-Canadian cleric-politician Tahir-ul Qadri triggered yet another political crisis in the country in the wee hours of Tuesday by putting the federal and provincial governments on notice, asking them to step down by 11 a.m. on Tuesday or face the “people’s parliament” that has converged in the federal capital.
Dr. Qadri’s call to his supporters to proceed towards the heavily barricaded high-security Red Zone which houses key government buildings including Parliament House and the diplomatic enclave set off a scare within the Capital of a law and order situation. As they began breaking through the multi-layered security cordon, citizens – fearful of a disaster waiting to happen -- could be seen using social media to plead for some police action including use of tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Earlier, addressing a rally in Islamabad after “long marching” into the Capital in a motorcade from Lahore around 2 a.m., Dr. Qadri said the federal and provincial governments had lost their mandate to govern and referred to all constitutional office-bearers as “ex-President, ex-Prime Minister, ex-Chief Ministers…”
Dr. Qadri – whose sudden arrival in Pakistan towards the end of last month promising a change in the system set the nation’s politics into a tailspin – said the “Long March” had ended and now the “revolution” was beginning. In his first address in Lahore on December 23, he had warned that he would turn Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue into a Tahrir Square if his demands were not met.
His demands included resignation of the federal government by January 10 and setting up of an interim regime in consultation with all “stakeholders’’ including the military and the judiciary. He had a host of other demands which also suggested that elections – due before May this year – could be delayed. Over the past few weeks, he has shifted goalposts several times but his dead-of-the-night ultimatum set alarm bells ringing in a nation all too familiar with such interventions under various guises.
Though Dr. Qadri had agreed to shift the venue of his rally from Constitution Avenue to Islamabad’s business district in the Blue Area, he went back on this while addressing the gathering. Urging his supporters to remain calm, he asked them to shift to D-Chowk – the demarcated area for protests opposite Parliament House – and the gathering began breaking through the security cordon soon after.
The D-Chowk area itself had been cordoned off days in advance with shipping containers in anticipation of an attempt by Dr. Qadri’s supporters to access Constitution Avenue. As of 4 a.m. on Tuesday, efforts were on to defuse the situation and persuade Dr. Qadri to confine the gathering to the earlier designated space.
Supporters clash with police
Police fired in the air and used teargas to disperse followers of Dr. Qadri who gathered for the protest in the Pakistani capital after they clashed with security forces.
Footage on television showed policemen in riot gear firing in the air and using batons to push back dozens of supporters of Dr. Qadri, who lobbed stones at them.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik told the media that security forces fired in the air after Dr.Qadri’s supporters pelted them with stones.
Dr. Qadri’s spokesman Shahid Mursaleen claimed in an email statement that trouble erupted after police tried to arrest the cleric. “Once they realised that the crowd is not letting them come near him, they (police) opened fire in the air which lasted for 10 minutes,” he claimed.
Mr. Mursaleen further claimed police fired at Dr. Qadri’s car and tried to smash its windows. “The crowd ran after the police with sticks when they realised the police (was trying) to attack their leader. The police ran away,” he said.
His claims could not be independently confirmed. The spokesman said Dr. Qadri, who was in a portable shelter, was safe.