Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed claims around 350 workers of banned group have already been released from prison
The banned Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) on Sunday “paused” its long march toward Islamabad after the federal government agreed to release all arrested activists and withdraw pending cases against them by Wednesday (Oct. 27), with observers describing the decision as a “total surrender.”
According to Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who said he had personally negotiated an end to the protest with detained TLP chief Saad Rizvi, the government has also assured the TLP leadership that it would review the Fourth Schedule list of its members and work to release Rivzi. “We have released 350 TLP workers up to now and we are still waiting to open both sides of road of Muridke as per the decision with the TLP,” he said in a posting on Twitter.
Rashid said the government would continue its negotiations with the TLP today (Monday) in Islamabad. He said that until the agreement with the TLP—to release its activists, including chief Rizvi, and withdraw cases against them—had been fulfilled, likely by Wednesday, the protesters had agreed that they would not leave Muridke. However, TLP leaders have suggested that the real reason for the delay is that Rashid wanted to wait for Prime Minister Imran Khan to return to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia, where it he is currently on an official visit. They also suggested that Rashid had told them that their demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador would be considered.
“Perhaps the people will say that the state has surrendered. But it is not the job of the state to use the stick,” Rashid claimed during his press conference as he acknowledged that the messaging of releasing violent protesters without charge was problematic. Stressing that a political government always sought the path of reconciliation, he clarified that this was his personal perspective.
Addressing supporters, a TLP organizer in Muridke said the released activists would also gather at the location, adding that they would announce their next course of action on Wednesday. Noting that this could be an end to the long march if its agreement with the government were fulfilled, he warned that if authorities reneged once more, the protest would continue.
In his press conference, the interior minister assured residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad that the shipping containers blocking major thoroughfares would be removed. However, he added, the containers restricting travel on G.T. Road would remain until the long march had officially ended.
The TLP protest, which officially began in Lahore on Friday, has thus far resulted in the deaths of three policemen and the injuries of dozens more. The TLP claims that up to six of its workers have been killed in clashes with police, and hundreds more have been injured due to heavy tear-gas shelling. Announcing the protest, the TLP had stressed that the government had not fulfilled an agreement from April.
To a question, the interior minister said this was correct. “Their [TLP] objection that we had done nothing positive in the last six months was correct,” he said, adding that he had sought to explain to the group’s leadership that Islamabad risked great international backlash over any diplomat’s expulsion due to its status as the sole Muslim nuclear power. He noted that there was no French ambassador in Pakistan at the moment, and a senior diplomat was managing affairs at the embassy.
However, he added, the government would request the National Assembly speaker to constitute a committee to debate the issue as per the agreement with the TLP.
To another question, Rashid claimed the government had not “banned” the TLP. “We have not banned them. They are contesting elections on their symbols. They are neither here nor there. We did not approach the Supreme Court,” he said, adding that it was nonetheless “proscribed.”
The PTI-led government banned the TLP under the Anti-Terrorism Act in April, placing it on the list of banned organizations. Announcing the decision on April 15, Rashid had claimed the government would take measures for the TLP’s dissolution. A meeting of the federal cabinet on July 13 also decided to retain the ban on the TLP, however it failed to formally get it delisted by the Election Commission of Pakistan.