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ISLAMABAD: The government fired its first salvos in its face-off with Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) on Thursday after a bevy of police and paramilitary forces raided a party convention at a private venue in Sector E-11 and picked up around 40 party workers.

TV channels showed footage of scuffles between young men and women, many of whom were hauled off by law enforcement personnel.

Party workers and leaders had gathered for a youth convention at a private marquee along Margalla Road; a gathering of 400 to 500 people.

Shortly thereafter, police officers and officials of the district administration also reached the spot and cordoned off the hall with the help of paramilitary personnel.

An officer of the district administration approached the organisers and the hall management and told them that without an NoC, they were not allowed to hold an event while Section 144 was imposed in the city.

Workers convention at private venue scuttled after imposition of Section 144 At least 40 party workers picked up ICT admin claims PTI didn’t have NoC to hold gathering PTI maintains it didn’t need permission for event held ‘behind closed doors’

Earlier in the day, Islamabad Deputy Commissioner retired Captain Mushtaq Ahmed had issued three notifications notifying the imposition of Section 144, placing a bar on gatherings in public places, the open carrying and display of arms as well as the misuse of loudspeakers.

However, PTI leaders refused to comply, saying that Section 144 did not apply to gatherings held behind closed doors. While the administration officials demanded that the event be called off and the area vacated, party leaders and activists gathered in the parking area in front of the hall and began chanting slogans against the government.

This led to a stand-off and violence erupted soon afterwards. District administration officials on the scene ordered police action to disperse the unruly mob, after which scuffles broke out between police and paramilitary troops, who had to use force and resorted to baton-charging the demonstrators.

Earlier, around 3pm, the owner of the venue was approached by the district administration and warned against providing the hall for a PTI event, an official of the district administration told Dawn. He added that later, Golra police also detained the owner of the hall.

PTI assistant information secretary Sibghatullah Virk told Dawn that the convention was a routine event, held to mobilise workers, which was supposed to be addressed by party leaders Asad Umar and Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

He said the hall management had told party leaders in the afternoon that the capital administration had disallowed them from holding the event as there was a ban on political gatherings in the city.

When party leaders and workers gathered at the hall later in the evening, they found it sealed and surrounded by police. At this point, workers began to congregate in the parking lot outside, while Shah Mehmood Qureshi began to speak to the media. It was during his media talk that the police took action.

In a statement issued later on Thursday night by an interior ministry spokesperson, the district administration claimed that the action against PTI workers in E-11 was not a police crackdown, rather the action was carried because a political party had organised a convention despite the promulgation of Section 144.

The statement noted that though PTI’s Islamabad MNA – a reference to Asad Umar – had been asked to seek prior permission for the event, no such request was neither received nor granted.

However, PTI spokesperson Naeemul Haq contended that Section 144 did not apply to gathering held in private spaces, behind closed doors. “The restriction applies to gathering in public places, this is simply high-handedness,” he said, adding that the way women had been baton-charged was deplorable and condemnable.

“Our workers have already begun reacting to this provocation; it seems that Nov 2 is already upon us,” he said.

PTI sources claimed that over 100 people, including local government representatives, had been arrested from E-11 and were being held at the Golra, Kohsar, Secretariat and Shalimar police stations.

Mr Haq said that the party’s lawyers were trying to secure the workers’ release, but there was no official confirmation of the numbers of people in custody, nor any word on whether they had been charged with a crime.

When asked, former inspector general of police Advocate Saleemullah Khan told Dawn that while Section 144 applied primarily to public places, wedding halls, hotels and restaurants also fell into the description of a public place, but Section 144 doesn’t apply to private residences.

He said that if police wanted to raid a party meeting or gathering held in a private residence, they would need to secure warrants to enter the premises.

In his presser following the police action, Imran Khan had already called for party workers to come out to protest government high-handedness.

Therefore, later on Thursday night, PTI activists gathered at several points along Islamabad Expressway to protest the treatment of their party colleagues at the hands of the Islamabad adminstration. They burned tyres and blocked the road, chanting slogans against the government.

Police then reached the scene and used force to disperse the protesters. An unknown number of party workers were also picked up, but it was not clear whether they were booked or released later.

Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2016