Police in Lahore clashed with workers of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) on Wednesday, after the interim Punjab government imposed Section 144—barring any gatherings of five or more people—in the city ahead of a planned rally from Zaman Park to Data Darbar.
Initially announced as the launch of its election campaign, the rally was re-designated as a “Save the Judiciary” march, with PTI leader Hammad Azhar claiming party chief Imran Khan would personally lead it. It was set to begin at 2 p.m., with Azhar vowing that the “sea of people” participating would mark the set of a new revolution. However, hours before the rally was to start, the provincial government imposed Section 144, barring all forms of public gatherings and events, and set up containers and police vans along the designated route to prevent it from proceeding. At the same time, dozens of PTI workers already present at Zaman Park were taken into custody, with water cannons and tear gas being used to disperse them.
After several hours of clashes between police and PTI workers, the party called off the protest, with Khan urging everyone to “peacefully” return home and deny the government any bloodshed that he claimed could be used as a pretext to delay polls in Punjab. However, a short while later, Khan alleged that Ali Bilal, a party worker, had been “murdered by the Punjab police” and vowed to file cases over it against the Punjab inspector general, the Lahore capital city police officer (CCPO) and others. In a subsequent tweet, Khan shared a video he claimed showed the PTI worker alive and well in a police van. “So he was killed while in police custody—such is the murderous bent of the present regime and the Punjab police,” he alleged.
The clip, however, was later proven to be edited, with the complete video proving that it had been recorded during the PTI’s now-defunct “Jail Bharo” movement and not Wednesday’s rally. Questions were also raised over the PTI’s claim of Bilal having been “murdered” by police, with CCTV footage from Services Hospital—where his body was taken—showing that he had been brought to the facility by two plainclothes men, who fled shortly after he was confirmed dead. The PTI maintains that these were men affiliated with the police who were trying to escape prosecution for their crimes. Police, however, deny this, announcing that a two-member committee has been formed to probe the death, which appeared to be the result of a road accident. The committee, it said, would record the statements of witnesses and submit a report to the IGP within three days.
According to police, the clashes also resulted in injuries to 13 police officials, including one cop who was “critically injured.” These men, they have alleged, were injured after the PTI mob “attacked” them. Police have registered a case against several PTI leaders, including Imran Khan, Hassan Niazi, Hammad Azhar, Memoodur Rasheed, Farrukh Habib, Fawad Chaudhry and Ejaz Chaudhry, claiming they had directed party workers to target law enforcement officials.
The First Information Report (FIR), filed on behalf of the DSP Raiwind, states that a mob of at least 300-400 PTI workers rioted in Lahore and used “foul language” against state institutions. Registered under Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, as well as Sections 147, 149, 353, 186, 302, 324, 188, 427, 290, 291, and 109 of the Pakistan Penal Code, it claims the mob pelted stones and attacked police with wooden sticks, leading to injuries of 13 police personnel as well as six PTI workers.
The crackdown on PTI workers has triggered condemnations from the party, as well as human rights organizations. In a statement, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan described the police action as “shortsighted.” It urged both the government and opposition to commit to political dialogue and make concerted efforts to lower the political temperature to find a solution to the ongoing impasse. “It is unacceptable for political leaders on either side to remain this obdurate even as ordinary citizens struggle to survive,” it added.