LAHORE: Eight people, two women among them, were killed and over 100 injured when police clashed with activists of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) over removal of barriers from near Dr Tahirul Qadri’s Minhajul Quran headquarters in Model Town here on Tuesday.
Fifty-three activists of the party were arrested.
At least 81 of the injured were taken to the Jinnah Hospital where 10 of them were said to be in critical condition.
The clashes erupted when police, arriving at the place before dawn, tried to remove barriers from the roads leading to the offices of Minhajul Quran.
Over 100 injured, 53 activists of Pakistan Awami Tehreek arrested
Police said they were there to reinforce the city government’s anti-encroachment squad, a claim questioned not only by Dr Qadri’s party, but also others.
The standoff that became more and more violent with time continued for almost 11 hours and the area turned into a virtual battlefield. Intervention from the top leadership of the province and the show of remorse by the chief minister and senior police officials were saved for much later in the day.
Police used batons and tear gas to disperse the protesters and also opened fire. But, it is not clear who had ordered policemen to use force.
Witnesses said police intruded into the Minhaj offices, adjacent to student hostels and the residence of Dr Qadri. They accused police of firing direct shots at protesters, resulting in serious injuries to a large number of people.
Many of the wounded brought to hospital had received bullets in their thighs and legs. There were chaotic scenes at the hospital where an emergency was declared to cope with the large number of injured people.
There was some confusion about the death toll. But at a press conference, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif confirmed eight deaths and injuries to 93.
Initially there were reports about the death of a policeman but these were not confirmed by senior officials.
The chief minister announced a judicial inquiry into the incident and offered to resign if the probe found him responsible for the tragedy.
The gory incident was widely condemned. The PAT gave a call for countrywide protests on Wednesday with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement endorsing the call and announcing that it will observe a day of mourning.
PML-Q leader Pervaiz Elahi came up with a strong condemnation of the Punjab government, comparing Shahbaz Sharif with Narendra Modi, in a reference to the communal bloodbath in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002.
Dr Qadri says the road barriers, the bone of contention leading to the gory incident, were erected four years ago after court’s permission and that the issue could have been resolved through talks.
Police say that activists of the party pelted the anti-encroachment squad with stones and also “resorted to firing”. “Police observed restraint and held talks with the security team of the PAT secretariat for removal of the barriers but to no avail,” claims Capital City Police Officer Chaudhry Shafiq.
“After failure of talks, PAT activists again opened fire and hurled petrol bombs at law-enforcers. Police had to react in self-defence,” he said.
He denied that police had targeted the protesters and said that his men had fired shots in the air. He added that only an investigation could reveal that firing from which side had caused the casualties.
Sadaf, a witness and a relative of the two deceased women -- Tanzeela and Shazia-- said they were protesting outside the residence of Dr Qadri when they were hit by bullets fired by policemen.
Junaid, who has received bullet injuries, told Dawn at the hospital that policemen entered the hostel and started firing at the demonstrators who were trying to prevent them from entering the house of Dr Qadri.
The official version had several contradictions. Most officials said the raid was aimed at removing the barricades from outside the Minhajul Quran premises. But Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said in the Punjab Assembly that police had conducted the operation on intelligence reports that weapons had been stored in the offices.
He said there were reports that people were being invited there to take oath on the Holy Quran that they would participate in an anti-government movement soon to be launched by the PAT.
He claimed that the Minhaj administration had deployed private militia to man the barriers, turning the locality into a no-go area. The police claimed to have recovered two Kalashnikovs, three pistols and 33 empty shells.
An angry Dr Tahirul Qadri blamed the PML-N government for the tragedy and alleged that his party was “being penalised” for supporting operation launched by the army in North Waziristan.
PAT leaders said they intended to nominate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif in the FIR to be lodged with police.
Published in Dawn, June 18th, 2014