Despite a government ban and arrests of hundreds of activists, Pakistani opposition supporters rallied in a central city on Monday, calling on Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign for alleged poor governance and incompetence.
The rally in the city of Multan was held a day after police, on orders from the government, carried out the arrests and banned the gathering, defending the move as necessary to combat the coronavirus pandemic in Pakistan.
The government announced a ban on public rallies earlier this month as COVID-19 cases in the country surged. Since February, when the outbreak started, Pakistan has reported more than 398,000 cases and 8,025 deaths.
The rallies are a part of a campaign to remove Khan, whom the opposition parties have accused of being installed by the military in a rigged 2018 election.
Earlier in the day, police acknowledged arresting more than 370 people, while opposition groups put the number at about 1,800. Authorities in Multan also switched off the area’s mobile phone network.
On Sunday night, security forces placed shipping containers on major roads to block the path to a public park where the opposition planned to hold the protest. But opposition leaders defied authorities to march to the park anyway, setting off clashes that led to the mass arrests.
Among those arrested was Ali Musa Gillani, son of former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
Government-opposition tensions escalate
Before the rally, government spokeswoman Firdous Ashiq Awan accused the opposition of “doing politics at the cost of people’s lives”.
Maryam Nawaz, daughter of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who lives in exile in London despite being sought on corruption charges by a Pakistani court, attended the rally.
Earlier in the day, she told reporters she was not afraid of arrest and the rally would take place at all costs.
“There is no doubt that this government will no more be in power in the coming days, God willing, and I have no doubt about it,” she said.
Her father Nawaz has specifically accused army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa of rigging the 2018 polls and orchestrating his removal in 2017.
Sharif has resided in London since leaving Pakistan on medical bail as he continues to appeal corruption convictions.
Pakistan’s military has governed the country – directly or indirectly – for most of its history. Successive attempts at protracted democracy have been interrupted by military coups, the last one in 1999.
Pakistanis went to the polls in 2008 and elected their first civilian government in 12 years. There have been three consecutive elections since.