Pakistan opposition party has called off its rally scheduled to be held in the eastern city of Lahore after dozens of its supporters were arrested for defying a government ban on public gathering.
“You all should stop this protest because I fear the government will take this as an excuse to stop the elections from going ahead,” former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s said on Wednesday referring to the elections in the northern Punjab province of which Lahore is the capital.
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“They are trying to create a law and order situation and that is why I am asking my supporters that we must stop the today. We are calling it off,” Khan said addressing his supporters from the Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Pakistani police used water cannon and fired tear gas to disperse PTI supporters in Lahore, and arrested more than 40 people for defying the ban on holding rallies, which Khan was scheduled to address.
“We were able to see police vans taking away dozens of supporters who were chanting in favour of their party leader,” Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Lahore, said.
“The situation has calmed down after Imran Khan called off the protest. He had earlier said it was within the ambit of the constitution and his democratic right to hold the really.
“But the government banned the rally and came down with a heavy hand,” he said.
Imtiaz Gul, Executive Director of the Center for Research and Security studies, called the police crackdown on opposition supporters as “unnecessary and brutal”.
“There was a massive police deployment to try to prevent PTI workers from attending the rally. Many of them have been injured.
“There are all the indications that the federal government is trying to delay the elections in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Gul said speaking from Islamabad.
Punjab government bans rally
Earlier, the government in Punjab – Pakistan’s most populous province – said the ban was imposed on “holding all kinds of assemblies, gatherings, sit-ins, rallies, processions, demonstrations … protests and such like other activities across the district Lahore to avert any untoward incident”, according to local media reports.
The restrictions came hours before PTI party was scheduled to hold a rally in the city to kick off its campaign for the Punjab provincial assembly election.
Polls in Punjab – due on April 30 – were announced after the dissolution of the provincial assembly. Khan’s PTI had called for the dissolution in a bid to force early national elections in Pakistan.
The government of his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, has dismissed Khan’s demands, saying the vote will take place as scheduled later in the year.
The ban on protests and rallies in Lahore also came before an “Aurat March” (Women’s March) to mark International Women’s Day.
“Under what law” is Punjab’s caretaker government using “massive police violence against unarmed workers to stop our planned rally”, Khan earlier said in a tweet, calling the government order the “law of the jungle”.
“The only job of caretakers is to ensure fair and free elections. What they are doing is an assault on rule of law, our constitution and democracy.”
This fascist govt cabinet of 78+ jet off across the world on taxpayers money at drop of a hat to speak about human rights. Yet in #Pakistan they beat and attack the very taxpayers who fund their lavish lifestyles – abusing innocent protestors & destroying their property. https://t.co/HpCOSV7eZL pic.twitter.com/ElBo2kGB9t
— Shah Mahmood Qureshi (@SMQureshiPTI) March 8, 2023
Senior PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry tweeted that the ban on protests was “the new weapon of the fascist government” of Prime Minister Sharif and its “imperialist forces”.
“The people of Pakistan have always fought for their rights,” Chaudhry posted.
In April last year, Khan, 70, became the only Pakistani prime minister to be removed from power through a no-confidence vote in parliament. He is facing a slew of cases against him ranging from “terrorism” and attempted murder to money laundering since losing power.
Al Jazeera’s Hyder said more than 70 cases have been registered by the governing coalition against Khan, calling it a “political vendetta“. He said new cases are being brought against the PTI chief, with the police in Balochistan province likely to issue an arrest warrant against him.
Al Jazeera’s Hyder said that Khan’s popularity has sky-rocketed since he was ousted from power last April. Dozens of cases filed against him by the ruling coalition has attracted peoples’ sympathy.
“He has been able to win byelections by wide margins, and according to a recent Gallup poll he remains the most popular leader in Pakistan. Efforts by the ruling coalition to discredit him seems to have backfired,” the Al Jazeera correspondent said.
On Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court suspended an arrest warrant against Khan in a case related to the alleged illegal purchase and sale of gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries while he was in office.
A single-judge bench of the court ordered the police to not arrest Khan until March 13. The court also ordered the former prime minister to appear before the concerned court on March 13 in the foreign gifts case.
Police on Sunday tried to arrest Khan from his residence in Lahore, but the cricketer-turned-politician evaded it.
Khan has been living in Lahore since November when he was shot in the leg by a gunman during a protest rally. Since then, he has only once travelled to Islamabad – last week – for court appearances in other cases against him.