KARACHI: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and members of his cabinet have strongly criticized the decision of the country’s biggest opposition alliance to hold a rally in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Sunday, despite a government ban on the gathering which cites rising COVID-19 cases.
The opposition alliance has said it will require all attendees to wear face masks at the rally.
“The same PDM mbrs who had wanted a strict lockdown and criticised me earlier now playing reckless politics with people’s safety. They are even defying court orders & holding a jalsa when cases are rising dramatically,” PM Khan tweeted on Saturday.
Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of 11 political parties, told Arab News on Saturday that its Peshawar rally would go on as planned but with all attendees required to wear masks.
“We are holding the rally but no participant will be allowed to enter without wearing masks,” Muhammad Zubair, spokesperson for Pakistan Muslim League- N leader Nawaz Sharif, told Arab News, and added that special masks with one of Nawaz’s anti-government slogans, ‘Vote Ko Izzat do’ (Respect the Vote) had been arranged for the rally.
The PDM has been campaigning nationwide to oust the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan and has drawn huge crowds.
“This government is the representative of a stolen mandate,” Fazlur Rehman, chief of the opposition alliance said on Saturday.
“As we talk about COVID-19, we are also concerned about COVID-18,” he said, in a reference to the 2018 general elections which PDM leaders say was rigged in favour of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“A historic rally will take place tomorrow in Peshawar,” he continued.
On Friday, Peshawar’s deputy commissioner refused to grant prmission for the PDM rally, and cited the rising spread of coronavirus in the district.
A handout issued by Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province’s health department earlier, said an average hike of 12 percent was witnessed in COVID-19 cases in the province in the last three days.
Numbers of infected people and fatalities across Pakistan are rising to peak levels as the country is gripped in a second coronavirus wave.
“The coronavirus has turned serious due to political gatherings,” Taimur Khan Jhagra, provincial minister for finance and health, said in a statement on Saturday which quoted health professionals to say hospital cases of COVID-19 were exponentially rising.
“Whether we take action or not, we have fulfilled our legal responsibility by not granting permission for holding the rally,” Jhagra said.
He added that the PTI government had also cancelled its own gatherings in the interests of health.
But a trust deficit that has reached breaking point between the government and opposition has continued to dominate decisions.
Spokesman Zubair said that at present, the opposition alliance was not ready to believe the government on COVID-19 statistics.
“It is the responsibility of the PTI government to brief parliamentary parties with factual situation as the government has inside information,” Zubair told Arab News, and added that the government had only placed a ban on gatherings once its own election campaign in northern Gilgit-Baltistan ended and its own minister held his public rally.
“There is so much politics that goes on in Pakistan that nobody knows that what the reality is,” Zubair continued.
“The government didn’t do anything and we saw a huge funeral taking place today,” he said, in a reference to the funeral prayers of hardline cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, which was attended by tens of thousands of people in the eastern city of Lahore.
“It (government) hasn’t taken any other action,” Zubair said.
“Are they stopping overcrowded buses? Have they closed malls and shops...Restaurants are open till 10pm... weddings with participations of 300 people is also allowed,” he said.
According to official data, at least 42 people died and 2,843 more were infected with COVID-19 in Pakistan during the last 24 hours-- bringing the total count of infected to over 371,000.