Punjab capital smoulders amid lull in Zaman Park operation

Published March 16, 2023
LAHORE: Flames rise from a vehicle following clashes between police and supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan, near his Zaman Park residence, on Wednesday.—M. Arif / White Star
LAHORE: Flames rise from a vehicle following clashes between police and supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan, near his Zaman Park residence, on Wednesday.—M. Arif / White Star

• PTI chief claims he wanted to turn himself in, but fellow leaders cautioned against it
• LHC suspends police action until 10am today, will take up Imran’s plea for protective bail

LAHORE: After the Lahore High Court ordered the police to put off its operation to arrest former prime minister Imran Khan till 10am today (Thursday), an eerie calm prevailed in Zaman Park — the residence of the PTI chairman — after a night of pitched battles between the police and supporters of the PTI chief.

The situation could be best described as a ‘calm before the storm’ — police pickets around the residence are still in place while a defiant Imran Khan is refusing to back down. The second-tier leadership of the PTI is fearing an escalation of hostilities, whereas the residents of the city are keeping their fingers crossed.

As Wednesday dawned on Zaman Park, there was no let-up in clashes between PTI workers and law enforcement agencies. Party supporters retaliated with petrol bombs as police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse PTI activists, and gunshots were also heard. The party workers collected and showed empty bullet shells on posts widely circulated on social media.

Police initially suspended the operation due to a PSL match scheduled for the evening, saying the operation would resume after the cricket match.

In the meantime, the LHC suspended the police operation until 10am on Thursday (today).

In the early hours of Wednesday, Imran Khan released a video message alleging that attempts to arrest him were part of an alleged ‘London Plan’ that required his imprisonment. He said the London Plan also required the dismantling of the PTI and getting cases against Nawaz Sharif quashed.

Stating that police and Rangers were raiding time and again as if they wanted to conquer Zaman Park, he said, he gave an undertaking to LHCBA President Ishtiaq A. Khan for a personal appearance before the court on March 18 to avoid confrontation. He regretted the Punjab police DIG did not receive his undertaking because of the ‘London Plan’.

In his second address, Mr Khan appeared on screens with a number of empty tear gas shells and bullets neatly arranged on his tabletop. He urged the establishment and the judiciary to stop the “drama” going outside his residence and stop working on the ‘London Plan’.

He said the criminals currently in the corridors of power wanted to “minus Imran Khan” so that he should not contest upcoming elections.

In a question posed to ‘neutrals’ — a euphemism he uses for the military establishment — Mr Khan asked why they allowed the Rangers to come and raid his residence. “What crime I have committed that the Rangers were scaling the outer walls of my residence,” he asked.

Pointing to the tear gas shells and bullet casings, Mr Khan asked, “Is this democracy? I ask those, who hold real power, whether they are concerned about Pakistan or not.”

The PTI chief said he wanted to turn himself in but several party leaders and workers did not let him do so because of custodial torture. The party workers feared that any arrest would entail torture as they did to other party leaders,“ he said and added that the situation “is getting out of my control”.

LHC suspends operation

In response to a petition submitted by PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry, Justice Tariq Saleem Sheikh suspended the police operation till 10am when the court will resume proceedings in the case. Justice Sheikh is also scheduled to take Imran Khan’s petitions seeking protective bail in FIRs registered against him at the Ramna police station in Islamabad and Racecourse PS in Lahore.

Lahore High Court Bar Association President Chaudhry Ishtiaq A. Khan appeared on behalf of the petitioner, whereas Advocate General of Punjab Shan Gul represented the caretaker government.

In the first phase of the hearing, the advocate general questioned the maintainability of the petition, arguing that the matter fell under the domain of the IHC, where the PTI chief had also filed a petition against the arrest warrants. However, Advocate Khan insisted that the police action violated the fundamental rights of citizens and turned Zaman Park into a “war zone”.

The judge summoned the chief secretary, the inspector general of police of Punjab and the Islamabad operations chief at 3:15pm. The judge warned to issue arrest warrants after a federal law officer said the Islamabad police did not fall under the jurisdiction of the LHC.

As the judge resumed the hearing, IGP Punjab Dr Usman Anwar told the court that the Lahore police were only supporting the capital police for the compliance of the arrest warrants of Imran Khan issued by an Islamabad court.

He said that at least 59 police officers had been injured and two police vehicles, including water cannons, were damaged “due to the attack by PTI workers”. He accused the party workers of hurling petrol bombs at the police. The IGP said there was “no police operation” and only those attacking cops had been arrested.

In light of the proceedings before the IHC, the judge ordered the IGP to halt the operation and withdraw the police force from Zaman Park and station them near Canal Bridge on Mall Road, Dharampura Bridge (near the railway junction) and Sundar Das Road.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2023

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