ISLAMABAD: Throwing the ball into the district administration’s court, the Islamabad High Court declared on Wednesday that it was the Islamabad Capital Terri­tory (ICT) administration which could regulate the measures for the upcoming ‘Azadi March’ led by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F).

IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah disposed of identical petitions challenging the ‘Azadi March’ with an observation that “maintaining public order is a crucial responsibility of the state and its functionaries. The right to protest is indeed not an absolute right but it is subject to reasonable restrictions”.

The court order said: “It is responsibility of the law enforcing authorities to consider factors while imposing restrictions or conditions for the purposes of regulating a peaceful protest so that the rights of other citizens also remain protected.”

It said it was the district administration that “may impose restrictions regarding route or venue or impose any other condition having regard to maintaining public order and protecting the rights of other citizens. The state only in extraordinary circumstances can restrain a person from exercising his or her right to protest on ground of national security.”

Says peaceful protest is a constitutionally protected right and maintenance of public order is responsibility of state and its functionaries

The order said that it was also an obligation of the organisers of a protest and the participants to remain peaceful, unarmed and to strictly comply with the reasonable restrictions and conditions imposed by the competent authorities.

Leaving the matter up to the district administration, the court declared that “they cannot be dictated by this court as to what measures they are required to take in this regard or how protest rally/sit-in is to be regulated. These matters are within the exclusive domain of the executive authorities and no direction can be given by this court”.

The petitioners had invoked the IHC jurisdiction under Article 199 of the Constitution, seeking a directive for the district administration to restrain the JUI-F from holding a protest march/sit-in at D-Chowk in Islamabad.

Petitioner Riaz Hanif Rahi informed the court that the JUI-F had written a letter to the chief commissioner of Islamabad for holding the protest at D-Chowk and the matter was under consideration. He claimed that the protest manifested the mala fide intent and it was apprehended that daily activities of citizens of Islamabad would remain disrupted.

But when the court asked “whether the chief commissioner Islamabad Capital Territory or any other competent authority has given consent for holding a protest rally/sit-in at D-Chowk”, the petitioners replied in the negative.

The court noted that “peaceful protest by unarmed person is constitutionally protected right. This right stems from the fundamental rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of speech/expression, which are guaranteed under Articles 16, 17 and 19 of the Constitution”.

Likewise, the court order said, “no law-abiding citizen can, therefore, be denied the right of peaceful protest. However, correspondingly the peaceful protesters cannot be allowed to infringe the fundamental rights of other citizens. It is thus the duty of public functionaries to ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of every citizen are protected”.

The court observed that since the ICT chief commissioner and other law enforcement authorities had yet to pass any order on the JUI-F request for holding the protest, the petitions were “based on mere apprehensions because no decision has been taken by the competent authorities. The competent authorities are obviously expected to take into consideration all the relevant factors, particularly the relevant judgements rendered by this court or by the Supreme Court regarding holding of rallies in the federal capital”.

Subsequently, the petitions were disposed of as the court expected that “the competent authorities will ensure that constitutionally guaranteed rights of every citizen remains protected and the public order is maintained by ensuring that writ of the state is enforced”.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2019