PTI changes venue for Sialkot rally after local Christian community denies permission to use ground

Published May 14, 2022
People surround and climb atop a crane at the CTI ground in Sialkot on Saturday. — Photo by author
People surround and climb atop a crane at the CTI ground in Sialkot on Saturday. — Photo by author

The PTI on Saturday changed the venue of its rally in Sialkot — due to be held at 7pm today — after the local Christian community objected and refused to grant permission for using the CTI ground, which it owns.

The rally will now be held at the VIP cricket ground, some five kilometres away, the party's Punjab president Shafqat Mahmood announced in a press conference.

Earlier today, authorities stopped PTI members from erecting structures in preparation for the rally at Sialkot's CTI ground, with DawnNewsTV reporting that police fired tear gas and baton-charged party activists who were resisting the move.

There were also some arrests, notably of party leader Usman Dar, though police did not immediately confirm them. The PTI, however, released a video showing Dar and others in a prison van, where he professed his loyalty for Imran and vowed such measures would not deter the party.

Fellow party leader Ali Asjad Malhi later told reporters that Dar and the other party activists had been released in Narowal.

This morning, television footage showed police personnel at the venue, as people, some with PTI flags around their necks, stood atop a crane in what appeared to be an attempt to prevent it from dismantling the structures being set up for the rally.

Clouds of tear gas could also be seen in the footage, while another scene showed police rounding up some individuals.

The rally — in which PTI Chairman Imran Khan was to deliver a speech as part of his series of jalsas culminating in the party's "Azadi March" on Islamabad — was set to be held later in the day.

Taking to Twitter later in the day, Imran said "let there be no doubt" he would be going to Sialkot today.

"What imported govt did in Sialkot against our leadership & workers is outrageous, but not unexpected. This bunch of criminals out on bail and their convict mafia boss in London have always used fascist tactics against opponents when they are in power."

He said they "use and abuse" democracy when in opposition and "totally destroy all democratic norms when in power", but the people had now risen against them.

He concluded his thread by saying his government "never stopped any of their jalsas, sit-ins and rallies "because we are committed to democracy". He added: "I will be in Sialkot today and I am calling on all our people to come out and protest in their areas/cities after Isha prayers against this fascist imported government."

Ground belongs to Christian community, says DPO

Sialkot District Police Officer (DPO) Hasan Iqbal, who was present at the site, told reporters that the local Christian community had objected to holding a rally at the ground, saying that it was their property.

"As you know we are right now standing on a ground that belongs to the Christian community. They had filed a writ [petition] in the high court, asking that no political rally be held on the grounds," Iqbal said, adding that the high court then directed the Sialkot deputy commissioner to listen to both parties and decide accordingly.

"Leaders of the political party and representatives of the Christian community came yesterday and the former acknowledged that the ground belonged to the Christian community," the DPO said, without naming the PTI.

He added that the "political party's leaders" sought permission to hold the rally but the Christian community refused.

He said the deputy commissioner had also provided alternatives for holding the rally.

"We made it clear that we are not against any political activity. Holding a rally is a legal and constitutional right. But forcibly holding a rally on a property belonging to a minority community without any due process would be inappropriate," DPO Iqbal said.

"Then we came here and told them that we can help you with regards to an alternative venue. What has happened after that is there for you to see."

He said it was "not our mandate to make arrests or stop the rally". "Our mandate is to implement the deputy commissioner's directives, which was made according to the law, after the high court's order."

To a question about containers being placed to block roads, the DPO said it was the "political party" had requested for space for parking. "We have not blocked any roads," he maintained.

Separately, Reverend Dr Majeed Abel of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan also said in a video statement that CTI Boys High School, where the venue for the rally was located, was a property of Presbyterian Church, USA and had been handed over to the Presbyterian Education Board to promote education.

He said besides teaching purposes, the campus was used for holding an annual event of the mission.

"The campus cannot be used for any other purposes," the pastor said.

He said as soon as they received information that the PTI had started political activities at the campus, "we approached the Sialkot DC to overcome this crisis".

"We are working on it and also approaching other forums," he said, expressing the hope that the federal, provincial and local governments would deliver justice and provide assistance in not letting the school be used for political purposes.

Arrests and release

Earlier, when the media had begun reporting on the arrest of PTI members — including Dar's — DPO Iqbal was asked about the matter. He did not give a definite answer saying information about this would be given in an official version later.

But the PTI at the time, said in a tweet that multiple party members, including leader Usman Dar, had been taken into custody. Hours later, PTI leader Ali Asjad Malhi later said in a conversation with reporters that the PTI workers, Dar among them, had been released.

Malhi said the workers had been released from Narowal and that the party was currently setting up the new venue for the rally.

Separately, after he was released, Dar told reporters that the people of Sialkot along with the rest of Pakistan "would give their verdict today" when Imran Khan reaches the city. "What did we do [to warrant the arrests]? Are we criminals?"

Earlier, when Dar was taken into custody, the PTI had released a video statement, in which he was speaking from a prison van. Others could also be seen with him.

"They believe that our love ... for the captain can be contained by putting us in this prison van or jail. Hear me: throw us in jail, we will come out and again continue the movement for freedom, will again hold a rally. This storm is not going to stop. This passion will not die down," he said, adding that "we are standing with Imran Khan".

Dar added: "We will bear imprisonment but remain loyal to our leader Imran Khan. And listen closely, we will come out of the jails and again hold a rally in Sialkot. Our leader will again come to Sialkot. And under the leadership of Imran Khan, we will bury this imported government, these puppets of America forever," Dar said.

PTI leaders defiant

PTI leaders remained defiant and vowed the rally would go ahead. Former planning minister Asad Umar said the "nation is no longer afraid", calling on supporters in Sialkot to "get ready, as Kaptaan will be arriving this evening".

Former state minister Farrukh Habib said the "fascist" government had "stooped to cowardly acts". He also condemned Usman Dar's arrest.

PTI chairman Imran Khan's chief of staff Shahbaz Gill, too, upbraided the "imported government" for its "hooliganism". "Holding a rally is our fundamental right and no one can stop us," he said, adding the move was evidence that the ruling coalition's "legs were quivering".

PTI Vice-president Fawad Chaudhry and member Shunila Ruth contested the claim that the CTI ground was a church or reserved for sacred purposes. He questioned why Defence Minister Khawaja Asif had previously addressed a rally at the venue while Ruth claimed the ground had been used for sports and other events as well.

Meanwhile, former Sindh governor Imran Ismail threatened that if actions like today's were repeated for any future rally, then "we will shut the city down and you will see a protest in every city of the province," adding that there could be violent protests on a single call of Imran but he was exhibiting restraint and "responsible leadership".

'Negotiated with PTI for hours last night'

Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shehbaz told reporters in Lahore that authorities had held talks with the PTI for three hours the previous night as the Christian community had reservations over the use of the CTI ground for the rally.

The ground, Hamza said, was private property and the PTI was told that they could pick another public place for the rally, in which case the provincial government would willing allow it.

"But they (PTI) were stubborn ... He (Imran Khan) wants bloodshed. His ministers and Sheikh Rashid repeatedly talk about blood," the CM said.

'Won't allow a religious divide'

Meanwhile, PML-N's Ataullah Tarar warned the PTI that if it wanted to "make it a religious issue" in the name of protest and "attempt to spread chaos", there would be arrests.

"The church does not want you to use the land they use for religious purposes," Tarar told reporters in Lahore. "It is the same as PML-N saying they want to hold a rally at Bani Gala. Would you give your land? Traditionally, all rallies have taken place in cricket stadiums."

He added: "If you do not desist from your actions and try to create divisions on religious lines and forcibly try to hold a rally on the church's ground, then the bars of the jail are present. Our Christian brothers and sisters are as much Pakistanis as you are."

He said the white in the Pakistani flag is the guarantor of their rights. "The chief minister (Hamza Shehbaz) has issued instructions to the administration and law enforcement agencies that there is no permission to create religious divide," Tarar added.

'Govt told us last night rally was not permitted'

Farrukh Habib later held a news conference in Faisalabad, in which he claimed the PTI had applied 10 days in advance to hold the rally in that ground, but the government had not responded until last night.

"On the eve of the rally, they are telling us 'we will not allow you to proceed with the jalsa'," he added.

"We are aware who the master planner is. The government whose members are on bail, whose 24 members are on the ECL (Exit Control List), has ignored governance and the runaway dollar," Habib said.

"For the past four days, the crime minister has been in London with absconder Nawaz Sharif, against whom corruption has been proven," he added. "The plan was conceived there (London)."

Agreement on using ground 'reached yesterday'

PTI Punjab president Shafqat Mahmood said at a news conference in the afternoon that what happened in Sialkot was "utterly illegitimate" as all matters had been decided by Friday afternoon and an agreement had been reached regarding the ground where the rally was to take place.

"We were not told about any hurdles, but after that at three at night, the way violence was inflicted and unarmed people were beaten, it is shameful," Mahmood added. He said that however, such acts "will not stop us". "The rally will be held, and it will held no matter what."

Mahmood then announced that the rally would now be held at the VIP cricket ground at 7pm today. He also appealed to people to attend the rally and exercise their democratic right.

He also called on the district administration to release Dar and other PTI members, terming their alleged arrest "unacceptable".

The former education minister said the Sialkot episode indicated that the government was bent upon resorting to violence.

"Release Usman Dar, Hamza Dar and everyone else, and make all arrangements for a peaceful rally, or else this administration and illegitimate government will be responsible for the consequences," Mahmood warned.

When others present at the press conference pointed out to Mahmood that Hamid Raza, a minister from Azad Jammu and Kashmir, had also been arrested, the former federal minister specifically demanded his release.

"Why are you making the situation worse? What do you want," he said, calling on the government to "stop using such tactics". "Let our peaceful struggle remain peaceful, otherwise it will be out of your control," Mahmood warned.

He said the PTI would continue its peaceful protests and without naming any person or department, he said there should be no interference in these peaceful protests.

"And our struggle is focused on only one thing: calling elections," he said.

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