Clashes erupt at protest

20 Jan 2017


KARACHI: A protest demonstration organised on Thursday by rights activists against enforced disappearances became the site of a clash with police, as protesters were stopped from marching towards the Karachi Press Club.

According to the initial plan chalked out by a group of rights activists, the protesters were to congregate at the Arts Council and march towards the press club where they would eventually end the protest.

However, holding a counter protest was a consortium of religious groups, named Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (PBUH), whose supporters congregated outside the press club around 4.30pm. Their demand was that the missing writers and bloggers, including Salman Haider, Waqas Goraya and Asim Saeed, be tried in an open trial under Section 295-C of Blasphemy Laws. Called the ‘Islam Bachao March’, they had announced the protest through press releases and Facebook. The religious group had arranged a similar protest in Lahore a day before.

An estimated 30 activists from various rights groups including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), National Trade Union Federation (NTUF), National Students Federa­tion and Awami Jamhoori Mahaz were among the protesting group of rights activists, as well as students, teachers, journalists and a few artists who reached the Arts Council by 4.45pm and began their protest. They then proceeded

to head towards the press club. However, they were stopped by the police, mostly from Artillery Maidan Police Station, from going forward.

Deciding to stand at the Arts Council intersection, the activists chanted slogans against enforced disappearances which they said have increased in the past few months. Vice chairperson of the HRCP, Sindh, Asad Iqbal Butt, said that stopping people from voicing their opinion is counter-productive. “We need to listen to each other,” he said.

No one from the rights activists gave any speeches; rather they chanted slogans and asked to be allowed to continue their protest. A scuffle between the protesters and the police then broke out and some of the women demonstrators were shoved towards the pavement.

Deputy Secretary General NTUF, Nasir Mansoor said that “while we are being encircled and backed into a corner, religious groups are allowed to openly protest.”

According to SSP South, Saqib Memon, also present on site, the reason behind stopping the protesters from proceeding further was that a religious group was already protesting at the press club against the civil society activists, and the authorities did not want a face-off between the two groups.

Thus, the activists had been asked to stand at the pavement bordering the Arts Council. The protesters were encircled by the riot police as well as women police officers so that no one could move beyond the Arts Council intersection.

However, some men from the protesting religious group at the press club made their way towards the Arts Council and despite attempts by the riot police to stop them, threw stones which hit several women activists. Soon after, the crowd of activists dispersed and headed inside the Arts Council building for refuge.

In a joint statement, the rights groups raised concern over the increasing disappearance of activists, bloggers and writers whose opinions differ from that of the state. The constant crackdown on progressive voices is also isolating the country internationally, they said.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2017