Several thousand people attended a rally in Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, to demand justice for the country’s ethnic Pashtun population, despite an initial crackdown by local authorities.
Manzoor Pashteen, the 26-year-old leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (Pashtun Protection Movement, also PTM), said he wanted to present the facts to the people of Lahore that the mainstream media was not bringing to them, due to pressure from the military establishment.
Pakistan’s military said the media is free to report on all issues.
The main demands in the rally were to stop extrajudicial killings of Pashtuns, as well as produce in court the people that had been picked up by state agencies in the name of fighting a war against militancy and terrorism.
"Pakistan’s constitution says if anyone commits a crime, you arrest them and within 24 hours present them in court. But they killed thousands of Pashtuns extrajudicially. This is against the constitution," Pashteen said during his address.
Pashteen also demanded the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into these issues, as well as the disposal of police reports filed against students from various universities ahead of the protest rally.
Police in Lahore arrested some leaders of the PTM and other groups, as well as some students on Saturday, in an apparent effort to thwart the gathering. The grounds where the rally was to be held were filled with sewage water.
However, the local authorities seemingly backed off when protests erupted all over the country, including leaders of two of Pakistan’s biggest political parties.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the co-chairman of Pakistan People’s Party, tweeted:
"All Pakistani citizens have a right to peaceful protest. PTM are no different. From the arrest of their organizers and allies, to the continued harassment of students in Lahore, I condemn the high-handedness and disregard for the constitutional rights of the people."
The daughter and heir apparent of recently ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif tweeted against her own party’s government in Punjab province.
"Our Pashtun brothers should be released instantly and allowed to hold their protest rally. This country is as much theirs as ours," she said.
In the end, the rally went ahead as scheduled, and police provided protection to the attendees.
Various civil rights groups, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, joined the Pashtun movement in their call for justice.
"This is a movement that symbolizes the struggle of the common Pakistani people, for human rights, for the rights of people to their life, their liberty, and their dignity," said human rights lawyer Hina Jilani, who was representing HRCP.
Gulalai Ismail, a women’s rights activist and a young Pashtun woman, said the only way Pakistan could rid itself of extremism and its fallout was to change itself from a security state to a secular state and make peace with its neighbors. She also called for more access for media and civil society organizations to the tribal areas to monitor the ongoing military operation, as well as the creation of a system of due process.
"Anyone can be labeled a terrorist and killed," she said.
Pakistani TV channels that usually cover such protests enthusiastically were conspicuous in their absence. PTM leaders claimed the channels were barred by the military establishment from coverage of their activities.
Pakistan military’s spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor acknowledged that the people living in Pakistan’s tribal areas, mostly Pashtuns, have paid a heavy price due to militancy and the subsequent military operation.
He said they were already working to meet the demands previously placed before the authorities after a sit-in protest in the capital, Islamabad. Those demands included the removal of unexploded ordnances in tribal areas left behind from years of fighting, reducing the number of military check posts in tribal areas, and arresting a police officer involved in the extrajudicial killing of a Pashtun man named Naqeebullah Mehsud.
PTM plans to continue holding rallies in various cities, including one in Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, on May 12, to mark the anniversary of deadly violence in 2007 that left 40 people dead.