Top cleric vows mass protest despite threats

January 12, 2013 - 12:58:23 am

LAHORE: An influential Pakistani religious leader vowed yesterday to press ahead with a mass protest march on the capital to demand key reforms before looming elections.

“No one should harbour any doubt, there will be march, as scheduled, on time,” Tahir-ul Qadri, 61, told a news conference in the eastern city of Lahore.

He leads a moderate Islamic group that has thousands of followers in Pakistan and abroad, and has recently returned from several years spent living in Canada.

The government says the Taliban are planning to attack the march and that protesters will be barred from the centre of Islamabad.

“I am not scared of death, I will convene members of my family tonight and convey my last will, to tell them what they should do if I am assassinated,” Qadri hit back.

“Let them seal Islamabad, we will open our routes.”

Qadri accuses the government of being corrupt and incompetent, and argues that Pakistan must enact “meaningful” reforms before general elections, which are scheduled to be held within eight weeks after parliament disbands in mid-March.

It remains unclear how many people will join the march from Lahore to Islamabad, a journey of 300km.

Organisers say they will leave on Sunday and travel slowly, stopping at villages en route.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which is part of the coalition government, has bowed out of the march, citing “serious security threats” after suicide bombers killed 92 people in the southwestern city of Quetta on Thursday.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has called Qadri’s march a “conspiracy to destabilise the government”.

Media reports have suggested that Qadri is being used by foreign intelligence agencies and the army in a bid to delay the elections, for which no date has been set.

Qadri delivered a speech to tens of thousands of followers in Lahore on December 23, giving the government until January 10 to initiate reforms, claiming that the necessary “amendments” need only take a few months to enact.

He says Pakistan’s political and economic system has collapsed because it revolves around wealthy, landed aristocrats, and industrialists, and prevents honest people from being elected.