Prime Minister Imran Khan and Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar on Wednesday took notice of a violent protest by lawyers at Lahore's Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC), during which three patients lost their lives.
Grand Health Alliance Chairman Dr Salman Haseeb had earlier put the death toll at four. However, Punjab Health Minister Yasmeen Rashid at a press conference later on Wednesday confirmed the deaths of three people.
“Three patients including an elderly woman died after doctors failed to provide them timely treatment and remained engaged in averting the assault,” the minister said.
After hours of continued violence, police arrested dozens of lawyers and unblocked the road. Punjab government also summoned extra troops of Rangers personnel to maintain law and order.
Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari tweeted that a total of 40 lawyers were arrested but four female lawyers were later released. "More arrests will follow," she wrote.
The protesters were apparently on a mission to avenge a group of lawyers, who had been beaten up at the PIC a few weeks ago, soon after some video clips went viral on the social media showing some doctors making fun of the lawyers while recalling the incident.
The protesters claimed that the legal fraternity was provoked by several video clips doing the rounds on social media. They showed some doctors making fun of the lawyers after some hospital staff had thrashed a group of lawyers over a dispute at the PIC.
In a video that went viral on social media on Tuesday, a doctor is seen narrating an encounter with some lawyers in front of a group. According to the doctor in the video, a group of lawyers had gone to the inspector general of police and told him to charge "two doctors" under Section 7 of ATA. He narrated that the IG had refused while the lawyers had urged him to press charges, saying "they could save face" that way.
A large number of lawyers gathered outside PIC on Wednesday to protest against the "mocking video". The protest, however, turned violent as the lawyers initially closed off entry and exit points to the hospital.
The protesters also damaged equipment inside and broke windows of the hospital as well as cars parked outside. Protesters smashed doors of emergency theatres and staff had to run out to save themselves, according to reports.
Patients, some in ambulances, were unable to reach the hospital while those receiving treatment were left unattended due to the chaos.
The lawyers also attacked media personnel on the site with stones. A DawnNewsTV female reporter, Kinza Malik, was injured and her phone was snatched from her.
An eyewitness outside the Services Hospital told DawnNewsTV that a group of lawyers had fired outside the hospital. He added that the lawyers were cursing police officials who were trying to control the situation.
Punjab Information Minister Fayyazul Hasan Chauhan, who had arrived at the hospital, said that "lawyers had tried to kidnap" him. In a video, he can be seen being manhandled by a group of protesting lawyers.
Police used tear gas and resorted to baton charges in an attempt to disperse the lawyers, who had gathered at the hospital in large numbers. The president and secretary of the Lahore High Court Bar Association also arrived at PIC to convince the angry lawyers to leave the hospital.
Lahore DIG Operations, who had also arrived at the hospital, said that those who took the law into their own hands will be dealt with strongly.
Punjab Health Minister Dr Yasmeen Rashid was also at the hospital.
Meanwhile, Young Consultants Association (YCA) announced a nationwide strike after the violent protest. President of the YCA Dr Hammad Butt said that on Thursday no consultant will be on duty all across Punjab. "The vandalism by lawyers is highly condemnable," he said.
Chief Minister Buzdar, who was in Islamabad to hold meetings with PTI MNAs, assured that action will be taken against those responsible for the violence. He said that he was headed to Lahore and had directed the authorities to submit a report of the incident.
The chief minister ordered an investigation into the attack and summoned a report from the Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) and provincial secretary of specialised health and medical education. The premier summoned a report from the provincial chief secretary and inspector general.
When asked why the government had not taken notice of tensions between doctors and lawyers earlier, Buzdar said that the matter had been resolved.
'Inhumane and criminal'
Prime minister's aide Firdous Ashiq Awan condemned the violence and said: "Lawlessness is not acceptable at any cost.
"The manhandling of provincial minister Fayyazul Hassan Chauhan, vandalism and harassment of poor patients and their attendants is extremely condemnable and regrettable," she tweeted.
"Those who wear the uniform of law will have to obey the law."
The Punjab chief minister termed the incident "intolerable" in a statement. "No one is above the law," he said after the protest broke out.
"Such an incident at a hospital for cardiology is intolerable. To create hurdles for patients receiving treatment is inhumane and a criminal act," he said.
In a tweet, Buzdar later said that he had directed authorities to take action against those responsible "without discrimination".
Human Rights Minister Mazari said it was "absolutely horrifying that those supposed to act in accordance with the law chose to become terrorists when they attacked PIC in Lahore killing patients in the process".
"These lawyers actually murdered patients by pulling off their oxygen masks. This is sheer terrorism - nothing less. Govt must and will act," she wrote.
PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif demanded that a "high level and an unbiased" investigation be held and those involved "should not be forgiven".
"Can anyone compensate for the lives of innocent patients? Punishment should be meted out in accordance with the law," Sharif said in a statement.
"How will the legal and justice system work if the people who implement law start taking the law in their hands?"
He went on to criticise the government's "lack of administration" and said: "The incidents reflect that the government did not understand the gravity of the situation, neither did it show seriousness in preventing it."
Pakistan Bar Council Vice Chairperson Syed Amjad Shah, in a conversation with a news channel, condemned the violence, adding that the protest "was the individual act of a few lawyers".
"Doctors misbehaved with the lawyers first after which the latter turned violent," he claimed. He further said that a committee, chaired by the Punjab Bar Council's chairman, had been formed to investigate the incident.
Additional reporting by Sanaullah Khan, Haseeb Bhatti, Adnan Sheikh and Nadir Guramani.