Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal on Monday announced an extension granted by the Islamabad High Court (IHC) in the deadline for religious parties to end their sit-in at Islamabad's Faizabad Interchange.
Daily life in the capital has been disrupted for nearly two weeks by protesters belonging to religious parties — including the Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan (ST) — who are calling for the sacking of Law Minister Zahid Hamid and strict action against those behind the amendment to the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat oath in the Elections Act 2017. The amendment had earlier been deemed a 'clerical error' and has already been rectified.
The protesters had occupied the Faizabad Bridge which connects Rawalpindi and Islamabad through the Islamabad Expressway and Murree Road, both of which are the busiest roads in the twin cities.
The deadline for ending the sit-in is now Nov 23, Iqbal said, addressing a press conference after a court hearing on the matter today.
"We will implement the court's order," Iqbal asserted, referring to an earlier order issued by the IHC to the capital administration on Friday to evict the protesters by Saturday using "any means necessary" and with the help of the Frontier Constabulary and Rangers, if needed.
"The Islamabad administration did not conduct an operation against the protesters on my orders, because I do not wish for any unrest. I asked for an extension in the deadline so that we can find a solution," he added.
"We are in talks with religious leaders and I believe we will convince the protesters to end their sit-in," he said. "I am sure that in 24 hours or so, we will find a solution; there will be a breakthrough."
He recalled that the IHC had earlier observed that there is a designated area for people to register their protests in the capital ─ the Democracy and Speech Corner. The IHC in a hearing last week had said that any citizen who wishes to exercise their right to freedom of speech must not inconvenience other citizens.
"They [the court] have given a judgement on this, and we have decided that in the future, no one will be allowed to hold a sit-in. The administration will be given strict orders not to allow a situation like this to develop in the future," he added.
Meeting of religious leaders
Following a meeting of religious leaders later the same day, Religious Affairs Minister Sardar Mohammad Yousuf announced that it has been decided that the recommendations of the committee formed to investigate the controversial amendment to elections laws should be made public.
Yousuf was addressing a joint press conference flanked by Ahsan Iqbal and the religious leaders who attended the meeting.
Further announcing a declaration that had been agreed upon by all religious leaders, Sardar Yousuf requested the protesters to end their sit-in.
“The month of Rabiul Awwal has started, and everyone is religiously attached to this month. We should allow everyone to peacefully celebrate Eid Miladun Nabi and not cause difficulties for them by blocking roads and creating law and order situation,” the minister said.
Why has there been a delay in evicting Islamabad protesters, IHC asks
The IHC had earlier in the day asked district administrative officials to take the nation into confidence and inform them of the difficulties they face in ending a sit-in of religious parties at the Faizabad Interchange.
Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui questioned why the court's earlier order to the administration to evict protesters from the Interchange by Saturday had not been acted upon, and summoned Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal to appear before the court.
He asked the officials present in court ─ the Islamabad inspector general, chief commissioner and deputy commissioner ─ to provide an explanation for the lack of action against protesters.
The dragging on of the protest "is the result of the administration's complicity and incompetence", Justice Siddiqui said.
The deputy attorney general asked for a closed hearing as "some things cannot be said in an open court". The judge, however, rejected the request, asking the lawyer to say whatever must be said openly and "take the nation into confidence".
The deputy attorney general told the court that talks between officials and the protesters are ongoing.
Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, upon arrival at the court, said that some religious scholars were engaged in negotiations with the protesters.
However, Justice Siddiqui was not satisfied with Iqbal's response and warned of contempt proceedings against the minister for not following court orders.
"The court is not being respected," he said.
Justice Siddiqui said that the religious party leading the protest also participated in the elections and, therefore, should be treated as a political party.
Iqbal agreed with the court's observation and said that the government feared that the protest was a part of preparations for the 2018 General Election.
He said that the protesters were informed of the court's order, and requested the court to give the government 48 hours to deal with the situation.
The court, however, said that the government should use its own authority rather than the court's to deal with the situation.
Despite its reservations over the previous court order not being implemented, it extended the deadline for the protesters to be removed until Nov 23.
"The court has no interest in who is sitting in protest," Justice Siddiqui said, adding that the court had given a detailed verdict when Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) had warned of a lockdown of the capital.
He also provided the interior minister with a copy of the judgement on PTI lockdown, asking him to review the decision as it had detailed instructions and was prepared with great effort.
The interior minister said that certain elements wanted to create anarchy and the government was trying to defeat a conspiracy.
At this, Justice Siddiqui asked whether there was an internal power struggle within the executive and certain departments were not accepting the government's decisions.
Iqbal denied any infighting and assured the court that the the roads will soon open following negotiations.
Offer to send law minister on leave rejected
The government team currently negotiating with the heads of religious parties had offered to send the law minister on leave or reshuffle his portfolio.
However, the leadership of the protesting Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah is said to have turned down the proposal.
Sources privy to the talks between government teams and the protesters said that a number of possible options were offered to the sit-in leaders in return for calling off the protest, but all of them were rejected.
Insiders said that the protest leaders are demanding the minister’s removal from the cabinet, adding that this was not acceptable to the government, which has led to a deadlock.
For the safety of the minster and his family, the government has decided to send them abroad in case the protesters agreed to call off the demonstration, they added.
The government team consisted of over 30 people, including legislators, ulema and caretakers of shrines in the twin cities and representatives of the pir of Golra, the source told Dawn.
Raja Zafarul Haq, leader of the house in the Senate, is leading the negotiations from the government side. When contacted, he said the option to change Hamid’s portfolio was one of many issues that were discussed during his meeting with the protesters’ representatives.
He also added that a committee was working on the issue and no action could be taken against the demonstrators before the body can submit its findings.
The senator also confirmed that the law minister and his family was under threats and had received several threatening messages, adding that measures were being taken to ensure their security.
Earlier in October, copies of the Elections Act 2017 showing changes to certain parts of the law began circulating on social media, prompting lawmakers to take notice of a change in wordings on Form-A, which is submitted at the time of election by candidates, which turned it into a declaration form instead of an affidavit, which puts a candidate under oath.
Through the Elections Act 2017, the words in Form-A “I solemnly swear” had been replaced with “I believe” in a clause relating to a candidate's belief in the finality of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and it had been made not applicable to non-Muslim candidates.
Sections 7B and 7C of The Conduct of General Elections Order, 2002, which relate to the status of Ahmedis, had also been omitted from Elections Act 2017.
Section 7B says that the status of Ahmedis remains as stated in the Constitution of Pakistan, while section 7C states that if an enrolled voter's belief in the finality of Prophet Muhammad's (PBUH) prophethood is contended, they shall have to sign a declaration stating so, failing which their "name shall be deleted from the joint electoral rolls and added to a supplementary list of voters in the same electoral area as non-Muslim."
Certain political parties have also taken issue with the amended Election Act 2017, which was bulldozed through the Lower House of Parliament despite strong protests from opposition lawmakers as it paved the way for ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif to be re-elected as PML-N head due to an amendment that allowed politicians disqualified from holding public office to head a political party.
The National Assembly and Senate last week passed the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2017 to restore the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat laws to their original form and make sections relating to it "more effective."
Sections 7B and 7C of the Conduct of General Elections Order, 2002 were restored to their original form via the bill, and the Khatm-i-Nabuwwat declaration had also been restored to original form in both English and Urdu.