LAHORE: A populist cleric threatened yesterday to march on the Pakistani capital and overthrow the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, days after an opposition leader promised a massive anti-government rally to push for fresh elections.
Tahir-ul-Qadri alleges that more than 500 of his followers have been arrested by police in a campaign of intimidation, leaving him with no choice but to revolt if it continues.
A statement released by his Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) cited Qadri as saying: “If the government continues with the arrests of PAT workers or tries to arrest me, we will have no option left to immediately announce a call for the revolution.”
Authorities have so far denied that any arrests have been made. But clashes between Qadri supporters and police in June this year left 14 activists dead in a rare example of political violence in the relatively peaceful Punjab province.
Qadri’s announcement will add to pressure on the government after cricket hero turned opposition leader Imran Khan announced he would hold “the biggest protest in the history of Pakistan” on August 14, the date of the country’s creation, to force the government into holding fresh elections.
Qadri, who is normally Canada-based, returned to Pakistan in June to lead what he terms a ‘peaceful revolution’.
The cleric had previously announced a mass prayer session for the victims of June’s violence to be held on August 10 in the eastern city of Lahore but it is unclear whether he plans to march on the capital the same day.
A religious moderate, Qadri commands tens of thousands of followers and held a disruptive four-day sit-in protest against the government in 2013, months ahead of the election that saw Sharif sweep to power.
Punjab law minister Rana Mashhood said that police had launched an investigation into Qadri over charges relating to civil disobedience.
“A case has been registered against Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri following a complaint by a citizen,” Mashhood said.
“Appropriate action will be taken if needed,” he added.
Khan, who leads the third largest party in Pakistan’s parliament, has long complained of massive rigging in the 2013 general election which saw the country’s first transition of power from one civilian-led government to another, though foreign observers said the poll was ‘credible’.
Analysts have said the protests risk undermining Pakistan’s fragile democracy and emboldening the all-powerful army, which has ruled the country for half its modern history.
Protest marches have played a key role in Pakistan’s political history, most recently in 2009 when Sharif and lawyers held a so-called ‘long march’ to restore controversially sacked judges.
Slain former premier Benazir Bhutto led a similar march with hundreds of thousands of supporters in 1993 which contributed to the removal of Sharif’s first government.