LAHORE: Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters under the banner of “Azadi March” and “Inqilab March” began moving to the capital Islamabad on Thursday, raising fears for political stability and civilian rule in the country.
Two protest groups - one led by Imran Khan, the other by activist cleric Tahirul Qadri - are heading to the capital from Lahore. They say the government is corrupt and should step down. Both marches were initially banned, then allowed to go ahead at the last minute. The protesters caused huge traffic jams, and by evening the leaders and most marchers had not left Lahore. Reuters reporters in Lahore and Peshawar said tens of thousands of people were congregating for the marches.
Imran and Qadri are not officially allied though both are enemies of the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party swept an election last year. In Islamabad, security was tight. Main roads and key areas, including many embassies, were blocked by riot police and shipping containers. But Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan said the marchers would be allowed to enter. Qadri’s spokesman said they planned to occupy Jinnah Avenue, the main street in the capital near many embassies and top government offices.
Qadri has said he plans to force out Nawaz and his government by the end of the month. “There will be a sit-in. They will stay there until their demands are met and (Nawaz) steps down,” Qadri told Reuters. “Every homeless person will be provided housing; every unemployed person will be given a job; low-paid people will be provided with daily necessities,” Qadri said on Thursday. One of his main complaints is that violence against his supporters by police is not being properly investigated. About 2,000 of his supporters have been arrested, police say.
Imran Khan said he was cheated in the general election in May last year and wants a proper investigation into his complaints. His supporters were exuberant as they set off on the 370-km journey to Islamabad on Thursday, an Independence Day holiday. Imran travelled in a modified, bulletproof shipping container with windows. Many of his supporters carried sleeping mats and food, determined to camp on Islamabad streets until their demands were met - including a demand for Nawaz to resign.
“I was treated at his cancer hospital free of cost,” said 50-year-old housewife Aasia Khan, referring to a charitable hospital that Imran set up in memory of his mother. “I owe him a lot and will support him until I die.” On Thursday, he challenged Nawaz over tax evasion and the country’s dependence on foreign donors. “The begging bowl will break only when you start paying taxes yourself,” he said in a speech. Imran had won 34 seats in the 342-seat lower house of parliament in the last election. Nawaz’s party won 190 seats. Qadri did not contest.
The Lahore High Court (LHC) had on Wednesday restrained the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan Awami Tehreek of Tahirul Qadri from launching the “Azadi March” and the “Inqilab March” and from staging a sit-in in Islamabad in an unconstitutional way. However, Imran Khan announced that he will hold a peaceful Azadi March under the law, constitution and democracy, and he will reach Islamabad on August 14 in any case. While talking to media at his residence in Zaman Part on Wednesday Imran referred to the order of the full bench of the Lahore High Court and said the court has only restrained his party from launching any unconstitutional march so he would launch a peaceful march, under the constitution and in compliance with the court orders.
Meanwhile, addressing a press conference at the Minhajul Quran Secretariat in Lahore on Wednesday, Qadri reassured that his party’s march will be peaceful and per the constitution. He claimed that it was aimed at enforcing the constitution. Referring to the LHC ruling, Qadri said that Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Punjab and federal governments have committed contempt of court by not removing the barricades.
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