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Scuffles break out in parliament

November 04, 2003

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 3: Scuffles broke out between rival members in the National Assembly on Monday during an opposition protest against the arrest of ARD president Makhdoom Javed Hashmi that also provoked a speaker’s threat for action against the protesters and a minister’s fears about the future of the lower house.

Some rival assembly members struggled and pushed each other at the lower steps of the speaker’s rostrum in front of Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Jamali, who later promised support for any disciplinary action taken by the chair.

The members from the ruling coalition and the opposition who engaged in the scuffles stopped short of fist-fights as they were separated by senior members from both sides.

Nearly 80 opposition members assembled in front of the rostrum at the start of the assembly session and kept on shouting slogans for more than an hour, mainly against President Musharraf and for the release of Javed Hashmi, who was arrested last week on eight charges, including sedition and attempt to incite a mutiny.

Speaker Amir Hussain Chaudhry repeatedly described the protest as illegal, but said he was allowing it for the day in the hope that the opposition would mend its ways but would take action “at an appropriate time” under the rules, which allowed him to use force to remove any member from the house.

Things became nasty when a couple of ruling coalition members went over to the opposition crowd in an apparent move to snatch some of the banners inscribed with anti-government slogans.

The two sides also exchanged remarks that could not be heard in the galleries because of the continuing slogans denouncing the arrest of Mr Hashmi.

The opposition wanted the speaker to use his discretionary powers under the assembly’s rules of procedure to issue a production order for Mr Hashmi, as had been done by previous speakers.

Speaker Amir Hussain, who continued making critical remarks about the protest while carrying on with the day’s question-hour despite the deafening noise, said at one stage he had written to the law ministry for its legal opinion about issuing a production order, and promised to act at “the appropriate time”.

“Issue production order,” “Powerless speaker (must) resign,” the protesters chanted, besides other slogans such as the usual “Go Musharraf go” and “No LFO no.”

Several members of the ruling coalition, rising on points of order, called opposition’s behaviour as an insult to the house and the speaker and called for action against the protesters.

In the presence of the prime minister, members of his PML-Q and some allied parties seemed trying to fall over one another other to denounce the opposition and defend the president and Mr Jamali.

The prime minister, who watched the drama quietly from his desk in the house, later told reporters his government would support any action taken by the speaker.

The speeches by ruling coalition members were inaudible in the galleries but could be heard through headphones fixed to members’ desks.

“I am giving them an opportunity today....but if they do not behave even after today, then I will take action,” the speaker said.

“I know my powers and know how to implement them,” he added without elaborating.

But at one time he particularly named PML-N activists Begum Tehmina Daultana and Abid Sher Ali for possible action.

MORE CONFRONTATION IN OFFING: Opposition sources said similar protests would be staged in the coming days, which could mean another confrontation on Tuesday, when the house is due to meet 11am before a two-day recess until next Friday.

“This is no Mochi Gate,” the speaker said in a reference to Lahore’s famous site for public rallies, while objecting to opposition slogans, one of which said “Release the speaker” — an implied allegation that he was not free to act. “Such slogans should not be raised in the assembly,” the chair said.

The opposition protest ended when the sitting was briefly adjourned for Zuhar prayers, after which the protesters did not return, allowing the ruling coalition to complete the day’s agenda, which included formation of 39 standing committees and a special committee on Kashmir comprising members from both sides of the house and disposing of two call-attention notices.

MINISTER’S FEARS: Information and Broadcasting Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, making a brief speech in the opposition-less house, said he feared opposition’s latest behaviour could be cited as a ground for “any wrong decision tomorrow”.

He did not elaborate, but the minister seemed to be referring to the possibility of such incidents being used as grounds for a dismissal of the assembly.

Sheikh Rashid said the opposition had violated the sanctity of the assembly in what he called a well-calculated move.

He accused opposition members of conveying the message about their move during the protest to their mentors abroad by satellite telephone.

The minister complimented the speaker for showing patience but said: “In politics appropriate decisions have to be made. And that time has come...Time to uphold law has come.”

The speaker responded: “I will act at the appropriate time.”