ISLAMABAD: Islamist protesters gathered in the Pakistani capital said yesterday they would not end their days-long sit-in and were “willing to die”, as armed security forces readied to clear the camp.
The stand-off, which comes as Pakistan mourns more than 70 people killed in a Taleban suicide bombing targeting Christians celebrating Easter Sunday in Lahore, underscores deep religious divisions fuelling the Muslim country’s long battle with extremism. The protesters-who numbered some 25,000 at their peak-had gathered Sunday in support of Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged in late February five years after he assassinated a liberal Punjab governor over his calls to reform the country’s blasphemy laws.
They clashed with security forces in Islamabad before setting up camp outside key government buildings along the capital’s main Constitution Avenue. The government gave the demonstrators an ultimatum to leave late Tuesday, but it went unheeded, prompting authorities to issue a second call saying security forces would begin an operation to clear the area Wednesday morning.
That deadline, too, passed. Protesters were calm yesterday as leaders said they were holding talks that stretched into the afternoon with authorities. “We won’t move from this place until and unless all 10 demands are accepted,” said protest leader Ashraf Asif Jalali.
“Our workers are willing to die. If the government takes action they will not run away but face the bullets. They are not armed with guns but with clubs.” A police source said more than 7,000 security forces were poised to clear the sit-in, including the paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Corps with reinforcements from the Punjab police.
Army troops were already standing guard at government buildings. Analyst Hasan Askari said authorities were hesitant to act due to “both indecisiveness and caution”, saying the government “does not want to offend religious circles due to political considerations”.
Hailed as a hero by right-wing religious groups when he murdered Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, the demonstrators have demanded that Qadri be named a “martyr” and called for the execution of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five convicted of blasphemy. Pakistan has 17 people on death row for blasphemy including Bibi, but has not executed anyone yet. The protesters have also demanded the imposition of Sharia law. The government has so far rejected their demands.
Qadri’s hanging, hailed as a “key moment” by analysts in Pakistan’s war on religious extremism, has become a flashpoint for the deep divisions in the conservative Muslim country. His funeral earlier this month drew tens of thousands in an extremist show of force that alarmed moderate Muslims, while the call to hang Bibi along with the Easter attack in Lahore has underscored a growing sense of insecurity for Pakistan’s minorities.
Yesterday the death toll from the Lahore bombing climbed again to 74. Dozens more remain in hospital, seven of them critical, medical staff told AFP. “It’s a sense of great grief, sorrow and fear,” Shamoon Gill, spokesman for the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, said. “They are a serious threat to Asia Bibi’s life,” he said of the Islamabad protesters. Moderate Muslims are also set to suffer by growing religious extremism, he said, calling on the government to devise a “clear strategy”.
As the stand-off in Islamabad dragged on, violence broke out at an unrelated protest in Karachi Wednesday when authorities fired tear gas and water cannon at dozens of professors and lecturers calling for better working conditions. “It is an irony that those extremists who have besieged Islamabad are being appeased by the government and we, the educators, are being beaten up,” Aziz Memon, secretary of Sindh Professors and Lecturers Association said. – AFP