Tens of thousands of Pakistanis opposed to Pakistan's ruling parties and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have breached barricades surrounding the so-called 'red zone' in the nation's capital city of Islamabad on Wednesday as they fulfilled their vows to march on Parliament and other halls of power in order to reclaim the government.
Led by former cricket star-turned politician Imran Khan, who now heads the Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, and cleric and activist Tahirul Qadri of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek party, the demonstrators have been marching from various regions of the country towards the city center for weeks with promises of overthrowing the current power structure.
"This is a march for democratic reforms. We want rule of law. We want true participatory democracy in our country. We want to fight for human rights, for minority rights, for women rights and to eradicate corruption from society." –Tahirul Qadri, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek party
According to PakTribune, Khan vowed to create a "Tahrir Square" in front of what he termed a "fraudulent parliament," but promised not to enter the "diplomatic enclave." A sit-in was expected overnight as the crowds grew.
Though police and Army soldiers have so far shown little resistance to the forward movement of demonstrators, fears are growing that confrontations could result if orders are given. For its part, the Army—which holds considerable power and sway within Pakistan, including a history of government takeovers—has vowed to protect buildings but has not taken a strong stance against the protest movement.
Qadri, Khan and their supporters have accused Sharif and his political associates of mass corruption, election fraud and have protested the continued bloodshed in the tribal regions, tacit support for US drones strikes that kill civilians, and anti-democratic rule. In a statement on Tuesday, Qadri announced, "Our demand is not only the resignation of Sharif brothers, we want to change the system, to end corruption and reinforce true democracy."
Speaking separately to CNN, Qadri said: "This is a march for democratic reforms. We want rule of law. We want true participatory democracy in our country. We want to fight for human rights, for minority rights, for women rights and to eradicate corruption from society."
Using his Twitter account on Wednesday, Khan told his supporters and other disenfranchised Pakistanis to join their peaceful protest—known colloquially as the Azadi March—as its participants were "breaking all barriers" around the red zone, a heavily guarded section of the city that houses parliament, the nation's supreme court, the presidential residence, and foreign embassies. He also warned police there would be consequences if those who had been "unlawfully" detained were not released.
Subsequently, on Wednesday afternoon local time, Khan declared: "Tonite we will celebrate Azadi at D Chowk"—a reference to the main intersection that passes in front of Parliament.
Offering live coverage of the events, the Pakistani newspaper The Dawn reported the protesters were "gaining ground" as they took up positions around some government buildings:
Several protesters are at the Pakistan Secretariat and have taken control of the main gate of the secretariat building.
Iftikhar Shirazi reports that protesters have also taken control of routes to Punjab House and the police is not stopping them from approaching anywhere or offering any resistance.
No violence or clash has taken place between protesters and law enforcement personnel so far.
Protesters are marching on and although the police is alert but offering no resistance.
Three key doors of the Parliament House are under the control of the protesters. To leave the Parliament House, parliamentarians would have to use another route.
According to the Guardian:
The challenge from the protesters puts Sharif in a difficult position. Major bloodshed defending the red zone could create the conditions for intervention by the country's powerful army, which has a long record of sacking civilian governments throughout Pakistan's turbulent history.
At the risk of looking weak, Sharif opted to allow the demonstrators to move into the heart of the capital.
No attempt was made to block the progress of marchers by police, many of whom were armed with nothing more than sticks.
Protesters were even able to drive cranes into the capital to remove stacks of sea containers placed on key roads leading to the red zone.
And the Washington Post adds:
A senior police official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said officers were under orders to allow the demonstration to proceed.
Many of the protesters were carrying clubs, slingshots and shields and wearing gas masks in preparation for possible violence. But the demonstration appeared relatively peaceful, although one protester was seen being carried away after he said he was shot with a rubber bullet. The newspaper Dawn also published a photograph of a police officer with a bloody nose.
“Our mission is to get rid of these corrupt rulers and free the people from this corrupt government,” said Ajab Khan Miankhel, a 34-year-old construction worker who traveled from the northwestern city of Quetta to join the rally.
In a statement shortly after the protesters reached Parliament, the army warned them to keep out of government buildings.
“Buildings in the red zone are symbols of the state, and being protected by the army, therefore, the sanctity of these national symbols must be respected,” the statement read. “The situation requires patience [and] wisdom . . . from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue.”