ISLAMABAD: Minister for Interior Ijaz Ahmad Shah shows a copy of the agreement reached between the administration and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl for the Azadi march during a press conference on Thursday. He was accompanied by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
ISLAMABAD: Minister for Interior Ijaz Ahmad Shah shows a copy of the agreement reached between the administration and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl for the Azadi march during a press conference on Thursday. He was accompanied by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

ISLAMABAD: After a four-day journey from Karachi, the Azadi march, led by Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, finally reached the federal capital on Thursday and encamped at a vast roadside area near the Peshawar Mor interchange.

Before the march entered Islamabad, the JUI-F chief announced that the marchers would also stage a sit-in without telling whether it would be held at the particular place earmarked for the marchers’ camp or the protesters would proceed to D-Chowk where the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf had staged a four-month-long sit-in in 2014 when it was in opposition.

Shortly before the arrival of the main caravan, a rally of the Awami National Party (ANP), led by its president Asfandyar Wali, also reached the venue of the joint opposition’s show of strength, from Peshawar, demanding resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan for what it called ‘pushing the country into the worst economic crisis’.

• JUI-F chief insists that marchers will also stage sit-in • Fazl, Shahbaz to address public gathering today • Govt warns protesters against ‘challenging state’s writ’

Later, Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari visited the main camp of marchers and addressed them, saying all opposition parties had gathered at one platform to give a clear message to Prime Minister Khan that the time had come for him to step down.

Calling PM Khan a “puppet”, he said the nation was not ready to bow its head before a “selected” prime minister and “those who have selected him”. “We are not ready to bow before any selector or dictator... The hub of power is people and not the state.”

Other prominent opposition leaders who spoke on the occasion were Asfandyar Wali, Ahsan Iqbal and Khawaja Asif of the PML-N and Qaumi Watan Party leader Aftab Sherpao.

The managers of the Azadi march will organise a public meeting after Friday prayers which will be addressed by Maulana Fazl and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz president Shahbaz Sharif.

Before reaching Islamabad, the marchers had a long stopover of 10 hours in Gujar Khan amid speculation that they could change their route after entering Islamabad. On this, a senior official of the local administration rushed to Gujar Khan, met Maulana Fazl and convinced him to stick to their previous route plan.

Govt reaction

Interior Minister retired Brig Ijaz Shah and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAMP) on information Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan spoke at a joint press conference on Thursday morning, assuring the marchers that the government would facilitate them until they remain peaceful and follow the agreement signed between the opposition’s Rehbar committee and the local administration of Islamabad.

Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, the head of the government’s committee negotiating with the opposition’s Rehbar committee, said the government had taken a “risk” by allowing Azadi marchers to proceed to Islamabad. He, however, hoped that the participants of the march would not spoil peace of the city and would stick to the agreement.

Mr Khattak told journalists that the government had not given any timeline for the proposed sit-in and the protesters were free to sit at their camp as long as they want. He said three meetings between the government and Rehbar committee had taken place in which the opposition had chosen Peshawar More as venue of the sit-in after two other places — Faizabad and D-Chowk near Parliament House — were rejected by the opposition and the government, respectively.

Before arrival of the main Azadi march, the ANP motor rally reached Islamabad with at least 5,000 participants and the venue of the opposition’s main camp, where JUI-F workers had already encamped, became crowded. On this occasion some leaders of JUI-F and the ANP addressed the protesters, demanding resignation of Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid for a horrible fire accident in a train causing death of over 7o people.

Earlier, addressing a large gathering in Gujar Khan, Maulana Fazl reiterated that Azadi march included a march, a jalsa (public gathering) as well as a sit-in and urged his party workers to remain peaceful and united.

Vowing that the march would culminate in removal of the rulers, he reiterated that the march was peaceful and would remain peaceful and warned his workers that tonight (Thursday night) efforts would be made to make them violent.

The JUI-F chief also expressed grief over the train accident in Rahim Yar Khan and prayed for the victims.

Over 1000 vans and buses, trucks, motorcycles carrying the marchers mostly from Balochistan, Sindh and southern Punjab took part in the march.

Earlier in the morning, SAPM Dr Awan said that the opposition’s narrative was lifeless and baseless and the protesters coming to Islamabad should not do anything damaging to the national security and image of Pakistan.

Addressing a press conference along with Interior Minister Shah, she said that the government had the responsibility to provide security to 7,000 members of the diplomatic corps and staff belonging to different embassies and international organisations based in Islamabad.

“The United Nations had declared Islamabad a non-family station after the Marriot hotel bomb attack in 2008. However, due to the efforts of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the capital was again declared a family station in 2019,” she said.

Maulana Fazl had “embarked on an adventure”, she said and hoped that it would end peacefully.

“The government has accepted the opposition’s right to protest and it would fulfil its commitments in this regard,” she said.

Answering to a question, the interior minister said the resignation of Prime Minister Khan was out of question.

He said that the government would facilitate the people who would gather in Islamabad, but nobody would be allowed to challenge writ of the State.

In reply to a question, he said the name of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was not on the Exit Control List, hinting that he could go abroad for medical treatment.

“The prime minister has clearly instructed his party leaders not to say anything about the health of others (Sharif). “There would be no politics on the health of others.”

Some of the JUI-I workers at the last destination of Azadi march near Peshawar More told Dawn that they were prepared to stay there even for two months. “We have clothes to stay here for two months or more if instructed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

Kalbe Ali from Islamabad and our correspondent from Gujar Khan also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2019