The Lahore High Court (LHC) on Saturday fixed for hearing a petition moved by Aurat March organisers against the deputy commissioner’s decision to deny them permission to stage the march citing “security concerns”.

The Aurat March organising committee had last month requested a no objection certificate (NOC) from the district administration to hold a rally on March 8 at Nasser Bagh, Lahore, followed by a march around the perimeter of the park.

However, Deputy Commissioner (DC) Rafia Haider had rejected the plea citing “the current security scenario, threat alerts, and law and order situation, and in light of activities like controversial cards and banners for awareness of women’s rights and the strong reservation of the general public and religious organizations, especially JI’s (Jamaat-i-Islami) women’s and student wings, who had also announced a programme against the Aurat March.”

Khawar Mumtaz, Leena Ghani and Hiba Akbar submitted a petition to the LHC today, under Article 199 (jurisdiction of high court) of the Constitution, with DC Haider, the Punjab government, Lahore’s capital city police officer and National Commission for Human Rights Punjab member Nadeem Ashraf as respondents.

The LHC registrar fixed the petition for hearing on March 6 (Monday). The hearing will be presided by Justice Muzammil Akhtar Shabbir.

The petition requested that the LHC set aside the DC’s order for being “arbitrary, discriminatory and ultra vires” of various constitutional articles, adding that its operation should also be suspended till adjudication on the plea.

It requested that the respondents be “directed to fully facilitate the petitioners and all the women of Lahore to peacefully participate in the Aurat March being organised at Nasir Bagh”.

The plea argued that the DC’s order was “arbitrary and colourable exercise of power and is in clear violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution […] The impugned order is, thus, liable to be struck down”.

It added that the petitioners had met DC Haider and explained the plan for the march in a meeting during which she “did not raise any serious objection and did not even hint at the possibility that the Aurat March would not be allowed to be held”.

“It was only on March 3, three days later when the petitioners received the impugned order which put a blanket ban on holding a lawful assembly. A bare reading of the impugned order … demonstrates that the order has been passed not just in an arbitrary and wholly unfair manner but also that there is a terribly prejudiced mind of a state functionary at work against human rights campaigners.

Regarding the security concerns and the JI’s planned march, the petitioners said they had requested the DC to facilitate them by ensuring security in holding the Aurat March, which would be confined within Nasir Bagh’s boundaries for the most part on March 8.

“The mala fides on part of the respondent no.1 in the impugned order is too obvious to escape as it clearly implies that while certain other groups, who according to the Respondent no. 1 herself are maliciously motivated against the women’s rights groups especially the Aurat March, will be allowed and facilitated in holding their rallies and marches, the petitioners are totally barred from holding any such event.

“It is brought to the kind attention of this honourable court that the petitioners had in their letter requested for the respondent’s support in the form of provision of security arrangements for an event around the theme of International Women’s Day which is celebrated across the globe not just in Pakistan. This is a perfectly legitimate request which the state institutions are under constitutional and legal obligation to respond positively rather than exercising executive power in a colourable fashion,” the petition argued.

Citing prior case law and legal proceedings regarding the Aurat March, the petitioner said the respondents “have a history of creating hurdles in the peaceful and lawful activity of Aurat March which takes place just once every year”.

It added that the “arbitrary manner” in which DC Haider had responded to Aurat March’s request demonstrated the “complete inability of state functionaries” to ensure the effective implementation of fundamental rights.

“The ‘right to assemble peacefully and without arms’ is subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of public order. The restrictions imposed must, however, be reasonable, and it is for the court to decide in each case whether the restrictions are reasonable or otherwise. The blanket prohibition as in the impugned order cannot be imposed by the respondent no.1.

“The impugned order makes it clear that certain groups have the freedom to enjoy their rights to assembly and free speech and be treated preferentially. But, the petitioners won’t be allowed to enjoy their fundamental rights without any cogent reasons. This is an outrightly discriminatory exercise of executive authority by the administration of Lahore District led by the respondent no.1 which makes the impugned order liable to be struck down,” the petition explained.

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