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ISLAMABAD: Over two dozen demonstrators and at least eight policemen — including three DSPs and an inspector — were injured as law enforcement officials attempted to disperse protesting farmers, who had gathered to press for their demands on budget day.

The protesters from the Kissan Ittehad Council (KIC) gathered at Express Chowk, on the peripheries of the high-security red zone where parliament is located, on Friday morning.

The farmers were scheduled to hold a demonstration at the National Press Club on Saturday, a senior police officer told Dawn. But they showed up a day early, catching the capital administration by surprise.

Over two dozen demonstrators, eight policemen injured; violence breaks out after opposition leader’s speech

Around 250 people reached the spot, which is adjacent to Parade Ground on Jinnah Avenue, where they began to deliver speeches demanding subsidies on fertiliser and power bills and resolution of their issues.

The situation spiraled out of control following an appearance by Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Syed Khurshid Shah. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader spoke at the protest, where he bitterly criticised the government.

He said the government only came to farmers and labourers to obtain votes to get into parliament. But once there, it did nothing for their betterment.

“Labourers are in dire straits, but the government is least bothered... These people earn money and invest it abroad,” he said, and asked the government to open its eyes.

He also called on farmers and labourers to “get their rights, snatch their rights”.

After he left, the protesters began to get agitated. Negotiations with senior police and administration officials broke down when the demonstrators insisted on marching towards parliament.

The police presence at the scene, which was thinner earlier in the day, began to increase as reinforcements were called in from the Frontier Constabulary. Riot police and water cannons were also summoned.

The protesters then began pelting security personnel with stones, which triggered an hour-long melee in which police laid into the unruly mob with batons, tear gas and hosed them down with water cannons.

But the water cannon turned out to be a blessing in disguise; many protesters could be seen deliberately running in front of the water stream as it helped them cool down and avoid the ill-effects of tear gas.

It took over an hour to clear the road. Police claimed the dispersing protesters damaged public property, breaking traffic signals as they ran.

Police rounded up around 100 protesters, who were later taken to various police stations around the capital and detained.

Mohammad Ajmal, one of the demonstrators, told Dawn that the KIC had staged protests in other cities, including Lahore, where the government had assured them that their demands would be fulfilled.

“We wanted to go to Parliament House to stage a protest and meet the prime minister,” he said, adding that police had used force against a peaceful gathering. Another protester, Abdul Wakeel, said: “We are only demanding subsidies, but no one is listening.”

Most of the protesters hailed from south Punjab, specifically the Sutlej and Beas river belts, a senior police officer said.

The incident also reverberated in parliament, where the opposition walked out to protest the treatment meted out to farmers. In a brief but fiery speech, Mr Shah told the government that they had created this issue by using force against peaceful protesters.

“What were they asking for?” he questioned the treasury benches, adding that the ruling party was being unjust to that segment of society which drove the country’s economy and filled our bread baskets.

In a statement released later in the day, he said that the targeted action against farmers after his speech at the protest was “highly condemnable”. He demanded that the PM immediately accede to all the farmers’ demands and immediately release those who had been detained.

The interior ministry, on its part, insisted that police and administration officials kept trying to defuse the situation, even after the protesters turned violent. “Following spee­ches by certain political leaders, the crowd became restless and threatened to enter the red zone. Since this is not permissible under court orders... police had to act to disperse the protesters,” a statement issued on Friday evening said.

But late on Friday night, the ministry announced that talks between KIC and Food Security Minister Sikandar Hayat Bosan had succeeded. As a gesture of good faith, the interior minister said, all those arrested would be released.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2017