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January 20, 2017

Battle lines drawn as civil society, religious activists face off over fate of missing persons


January 20, 2017

With two weeks having passed since five social media activists went missing, a civil society demonstration organised opposite the Arts Council, Karachi to demand recovery of all missing persons saw over a hundred protesters who stood united against the impending threat at the hands of a religious group, Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY).

Planned a week earlier, Thursday's demonstration was initially supposed to be a rally from the Arts Council up to the press club to mark the passing of two weeks since the activists, namely Salman Haider, Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, Ahmed Raza Naseer and Samar Abbas, went missing from different cities of Punjab. 

The activists, however, were not allowed to march up to the press club by police authorities to avoid a clash with TLY members, who gave an eleventh hour call to hold an ‘Islam Bachao’ rally to demand action against the missing activists and those calling for their return under the blasphemy laws.

Agreed to restrict themselves to the roundabout, it was when the civil society activists were chanting slogans against the authorities concerned for failing to give any update regarding the case, that the policemen in riot gear pushed at the activists. The law enforcers’ jostling caused several activists to fall to the ground.  

By the time the police were using force to contain the civil society activists to the Arts Council roundabout, charged supporters of the TLY had reached the pavement opposite to where the activists stood.

Attempting to get back on their feet, the civil society demonstrators who had formed a human chain to secure themselves were then pelted with stones by the TLY workers despite a heavy presence of the law enforcers.

“As decided earlier, we were supposed to hold a rally for recovery of all missing persons, but on the very day of the rally we were told that TLY was also holding a protest to counter us. In order to avoid a clash, we decided to ask the police officials to ensure security in light of an imminent confrontation.

“But while our activists followed their guidelines, it appeared that the TLY workers were given a free hand to reach the other side and, instead of blocking their way, the police manhandled us. This means that the police was either party to the TLY protest or that they once again failed to contain these religious zealots,” expressed the Human Rights Commission Pakistan’s Sindh president, Asad Butt.

An activist who suffered injuries said it was unbelievable that the policemen were pushing women and instead of taking action against TLY workers for throwing stones, were cowering down before them.

Sadia Khatri of 'Girls at Dhabas' said it was ironic to see how the protest evolved: “On the one hand we were yelling slogans for freedom against state brutality — yet among the din of our chants it was the policemen who were breathing down our necks, asking us to go home as their own failure allowed the other party to march fearlessly towards us.”

National Students Federation’s (NSF) Karachi organiser, Muzammal Afzal, felt the state had once again bowed to the demands of the extremists who once again ignored the law enforcers and lunged at the peaceful protesters.

“It seemed that the religious zealots were free to exercise all means of violence. This is exactly how extremism is gaining momentum in this country with each passing day! However, we will keep struggling to recover all missing persons.”

The activists who moved towards the Arts Council to take cover were ordered to not be let in by the council’s management.

It was a relief when the activists were allowed to pass by an adjacent parking lot since a few TLY workers had by then climbed onto the iron doors of the Arts Council yelling for the activists to be handed over.