Pakistani Islamists clash with police, paralyze cities

Police retrieve their motorcycles which were burned during clashes with protesters near the Faizabad junction in Islamabad, Pakistan November 26, 2017. (REUTERS/Caren Firouz)
Updated 26 November 2017

Pakistani Islamists clash with police, paralyze cities

FAIZABAD, Pakistan: A hard-line Islamist party’s activists clashed with security forces in Pakistan’s capital and other cities on Sunday, officials said, paralyzing Islamabad a day after a failed clearing operation killed several people and wounded some 150.
The religious activists, who accuse a government minister of blasphemy for a change in the wording of an electoral oath, burned several vehicles outside the capital before withdrawing in an uneasy stand-off at a protest camp they have occupied for two weeks, police said.
Despite orders from the civilian government to the army on Saturday night to help restore order, no military troops were at the scene around the protest camp in Faizabad, on the outskirts of the capital, witnesses said.
The military’s press department did not respond to queries about the government’s order.
On Sunday evening, Interior Minister Ahsan Iqabal said the paramilitary Rangers force would be authorized to handle the demonstrations.
At least seven people, including a policeman, were killed on the previous day, when several thousand security forces tried to disperse the protesters, according to local media reports and a provincial official
At least 187 people were wounded in Saturday’s clashes, said the provincial official who asked not to be named. Police superintendent Amir Niazi said at least 80 members of the security forces were among those wounded.
Throughout Sunday, baton-armed supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik party blocked several main highways, roads and arteries in major Pakistani cities, paralysing traffic and daily life.
In the eastern city of Lahore thousands of the Islamists camped outside the provincial parliament and attacked the house of a minister, prompting police to fire teargas shells, a Reuters reporter witnessed.
Just outside Lahore in Faisalabad city, their supporters attacked and tried to torch the house of another minister, police official Niaz Mirza said.
Smoke billowed from the charred remains of a car and three motorcycles burned on Sunday morning near the protest camp.
On Saturday, protesters also torched seven prison trucks, three police vans, a television van and a gas station — all of which were seen still smoldering the next day.
Activists from Tehreek-e-Labaik have blocked the main road into the capital for the past two weeks in protest after blaming the law minister Zahid Hamid for changing the wording in an electoral oath proclaiming Mohammad to be the last prophet of Islam from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe,” a change the party says amounts to blasphemy.
The government blamed the change on a clerical error and swiftly changed the language back.
“Our movement has spread across the country,” Tehreek-e-Labaik spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters on Sunday.
“Thousands more people have joined us. We will remain here until our demands are met.”
Led by cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Labaik is one of two new ultra-religious political movements that have risen to prominence in recent months. Labaik, which campaigns to maintain Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws, won a surprisingly strong 6 percent and 7.6 percent of the votes in two recent by-elections.
While Islamist parties are unlikely to win a majority they could play a major role in elections that must be held by the summer of next year.
Laibak was born out of a protest movement lionizing Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab province who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to reform strict blasphemy laws.
By Sunday afternoon orders had been issued to lift a block imposed the day before on private TV stations and social media services.
After Saturday’s failed crackdown by police, the government called for military assistance “for law and order duty according to the constitution.”
However, there has been no public statement from the military in response and no sign that any troops had left their barracks.
On Saturday before the government order, Pakistan’s army chief called on the civilian government to end the protest while “avoiding violence from both sides,” the military press wing said.
The ruling party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — who was disqualified by the Supreme Court in July and is facing a corruption trial — has a history of difficulties with the military, which in 1999 launched a coup to oust Sharif from an earlier term.
Minister of Interior Iqbal said on Sunday that the operation wasn’t carried out under his supervision, saying city police acted directly on court orders.
“I was of the view that we should give negotiations two, three more days,” he told local Geo TV.
Iqbal had said on Saturday the protests were part of a conspiracy to weaken the government, which is now run by Sharif’s allies under a new prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
“There are attempts to create a chaos in (the) country,” Iqbal said on state-run Pakistan TV.


Tight security as 16 million Sri Lankans prepare to vote

Updated 35 min 40 sec ago

Tight security as 16 million Sri Lankans prepare to vote

  • Police, civil defense deployed with warning to crack down on protests 

COLOMBO: More than 16 million Sri Lankans will go to the polls to elect the country’s president on Saturday amid heightened security.

About 60,000 policemen and 8,000 civil defense personnel have been deployed across the island while voting takes place, police media spokesperson SSP Ruwan Gunasekara told Arab News.

More than 200,000 government officials have been deployed on election duty as the counting of votes takes place at 43 centers, while more than 125 foreign observers representing the EU and Commonwealth will also monitor the poll.

The government has spent $42 million to implement a secret ballot system for the 35 candidates at 12,845 polling centers, according to Sri Lanka’s Election Commission.

The winning candidate needs to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to assume office. Counting will start soon after the poll ends.

The ballot paper also lets voters pick their three top choices to help determine the winner if no candidate secures the first place by mark.  

“The first results of the presidential election 2019 can be expected by midnight on Saturday,” Mahinda Deshapriya, the Election Commission chairman, said on Friday.

Authorities have also told police to thwart protests during the election silence period that began on Wednesday.

“The commission has no intention to obstruct freedom of expression by blocking any social media, but it might be compelled to do so if the situation becomes worse or uncontrollable,” Deshapriya said.

He said that the commission had written to Facebook asking the platform to remove any paid or sponsored advertisements for candidates.

The Sri Lanka Transport Board will deploy 5,800 buses for election duties, including transporting ballot boxes and officials.

Special bus services will operate from Friday to cater to people traveling to their villages to cast votes.

Al-Sheikh A.C. Agar Mohamed, deputy chairman of All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, told Arab News that it was mandatory for voters to prove their identity when entering a polling booth.

Muslim women who wear the veil have been asked to cooperate with officers by revealing their face to confirm their identity,
he said.

Print and electronic media have been barred from taking pictures of political leaders entering polling stations, Information Director-General Nalaka Kaluwewa said.

However, pictures of President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, former presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya will be taken while casting their vote by official photographers, he said.

The two top candidates are former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa.