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Islamabad vows to ‘take action’ against belligerent protesters

Members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a political party, shout slogans during a sit-in in Rawalpindi on Monday. (Reuters)
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Marriyum Aurangzeb has said the time for negotiating with anti-blasphemy protesters is over.
Since last week, hard-line activists, many carrying makeshift weapons, have disrupted life in the federal capital, blocking the main highway between Islamabad and Rawalpindi and demanding that Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid resign.
The protests stem from government amendments to the electoral law in October which altered the wording of an oath for lawmakers. The government has repeatedly claimed that the change from “I believe” to “I solemnly swear” was “a clerical error” and the original wording was swiftly restored.
But the protesters accuse Hamid of sympathizing with a minority Ahmadi sect. The far-right leaders organizing the protests have been calling on supporters from other cities to descend on Islamabad and add their voices to their call for Hamid’s removal.
Hamid has posted a video on social media discussing his faith in a bid to lay the allegations to rest.
“I solemnly swear that I have no affiliation with Qadiani Group, Lahori Group and (nor do) I call myself Ahmadi,” he said. All three of those sects are declared as non-Muslims in Pakistan’s constitution.
What began on Oct. 25 as a few dozen protesters from hard-line religious groups, including Sunni Tehreek, grew rapidly last Wednesday as the Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) party led by clerics Dr. Asif Ashraf Jalali and Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi joined the rally.
Protesters have blocked the main artery between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, staging a sit-in at Faizabad intersection, pitching tents and threatening anyone trying to cross their lines.
Islamabad’s administration has placed shipping containers on several routes into the city and have deployed a large contingent of law enforcement officers to maintain order.
Some schools and businesses have closed and messages circulating on social media suggest people should avoid leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary. Public transport has been disrupted and the city’s business district has suffered significant losses as its main road has been shutdown by police to prevent protesters from reaching federal government buildings, as they have threatened to do if Hamid does not resign.
Aurangzeb suggested that the government’s patience may be running out.
“I think we gave them enough time and negotiated but they wouldn’t listen,” she told Arab News. “They have made everyone’s life miserable and we will take action to remove the protesters.”
Aurangzeb said the Ministry of Interior has ordered the road to be cleared.
In a statement, Minister of Interior Ahsan Iqbal said: “The government is avoiding extreme action so that extremists cannot take advantage of it.”
He added that the government is “trying to avoid violence.” However, he stressed that putting people’s lives at risk is a criminal offense.
“Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah leaders can protest but should avoid challenging the law,” Iqbal said, adding that he hoped the protesters would not force the government to take “extreme measures.”

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