Pakistan courts blast government over protest paralysis

Protesters from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan group have blocked a main highway used by thousands of commuters in Islamabad since Nov 6, 2017.
Protesters from the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan group have blocked a main highway used by thousands of commuters in Islamabad since Nov 6, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistani courts have lambasted the government for its failure to disperse an Islamist sit-in that has virtually paralysed the capital Islamabad for weeks, issuing blistering public statements and threatening to hold officials in contempt.

The 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 Nov 6, causing hours-long traffic snarls.

The sit-in has already cost the life of at least one eight-year-old child whose ambulance could not reach a hospital in time due to the blocked roads, a statement from the Supreme Court has confirmed.

The largely unknown hardline religious group is relatively small and no serious violence has broken out, but despite the growing frustration of residents and previous court orders for the site to be cleared, the authorities have hesitated to act, insisting on negotiations instead.

On Friday (Nov 24) the Islamabad High Court ordered Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal to appear in court next week and explain why he should not be charged with contempt for his failure to act, according to a court order issued by Judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui.

He said it was "beyond understanding" how even a prime minister could fail to act on a court order, and branded the sit-in not freedom of expression but "anti-state activity".

"Patients dying for want of access to hospitals, traders crying for lack of business activity, students are being deprived from their right to education and (the) right of free movement of almost six million people of (the) twin cities (is being) usurped," he said.

He also called on the country's powerful intelligence agencies to make clear that they were not involved, ordering the local Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) commander and the head of the Intelligence Bureau to appear in court on Monday.

Such agencies, particularly those run by the powerful military such as the ISI, have been accused of undermining civilian governments in the past in a country that has been ruled by generals for half its 70-year history.

The Islamabad High Court's scolding came one day after the Supreme Court also rejected the government's claim that using force on the protesters could result in injuries and deaths which would foment further unrest in the country.

The sentiment was "commendable", judges Mushir Alam and Qazi Faez Isa wrote in another order released to the public, "but it does not follow that protesters can only be removed by firing upon them".

The protesters could not be allowed to expose citizens to harm and death "as in the fatality of the child" any longer, they said.

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 Muslim Pakistan - and claim the oath was softened to enable the participation of Ahmadis, a long persecuted Islamic minority sect.

Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal has insisted negotiations will continue.