Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan on Friday kicked off his much-awaited ‘Haqeeqi Azadi’ march towards Islamabad with a no-holds-barred speech targeting the country’s premier spy chief and other intelligence officers.
Addressing from atop a container at the starting point of the march, the Liberty Roundabout, Mr Khan incriminated the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) director general (DG) for holding a “political presser” on Thursday, and called out two other army officers for playing the role of “Dirty Harry” for picking up and torturing a party senator. Seeking attention of army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the PTI chairman said these officers were tarnishing the image of the institution.
On Thursday, in an unprecedented appearance at a media conference by a spy chief, ISI chief Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum spoke alongside armed forces’ spokesman Lt Gen Babar Iftikhar. The officers alleged their leadership was being maligned for refusing to help the former prime minister through “illegal and extra-constitutional means” ahead of a confidence vote in parliament earlier this year and that Mr Khan attempted to entice the army chief with an “indefinite extension” in a last-ditch attempt to save his government.
Mr Khan began his speech on Friday by castigating the ISI DG for claiming his organisation was apolitical and neutral. He said the spy chief actually delivered a “political presser” and conveniently ignored any reference to the “group of thieves” that got its Rs1.1 trillion theft written off.
“I haven’t even heard (former interior minister) Sheikh Rashid conducting such a candid political news conference,” he quipped.
The former premier warned Gen Anjum that he also held many secrets, but was staying mum for the interests of the country and state institutions. “I am not like the absconder Nawaz Sharif that I will run away to London and then spew venom against the army,” he remarked, maintaining he had always done constructive criticism against the army and other state institutions because he wanted to see Pakistan an independent and sovereign state.
He also took on ISI DG-C Maj Gen Faisal Naseer and Islamabad Sector Commander Faheem Raza for allegedly picking up the party’s septuagenarian senator, Azam Swati, and torturing him. He further accused the officers of torturing party leader Dr Shahbaz Gill and journalist Jameel Farooqi.
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Mr Khan demanded the removal of the two officers from their current offices, citing the example of removal of the ISI’s Karachi sector commander following a ‘harsh’ statement by Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Alleging that Senator Swati was tortured for tweeting against the army, Mr Khan said such actions damaged the state institutions more than doing any good. “When Faisal and Faheem-type officers commit excesses against the masses, they eventually weaken the institutions and the country,” he remarked, and bemoaned that the world called such nations “Banana Republic”.
The former premier also warned the “facilitators and handlers” of the “imported” government that the nation would never accept the “thieves” imposed on them.
Amid blaring pro-Imran and pro-Azadi March slogans by the massive crowd that had gathered at the Liberty Roundabout, Mr Khan said he wanted to see Pakistan as a strong and independent sovereign state, which was only possible when the public was ruled by leaders of its choice instead of those installed by “foreign masters through a regime change conspiracy”.
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He reiterated that the only solution to the plethora of problems lay in free, fair and credible general elections.
“Pakistan must have a government that is able enough to take decisions aimed at public welfare instead of the puppets working on the instructions of Washington,” he remarked.
Complaining that the Supreme Court did not protect the fundamental rights of the people to protest in a peaceful manner on May 25, the PTI chairman again sought the judiciary’s attention that he was again holding a peaceful long march (within the ambit of law and constitution) on Islamabad and hoped the apex court would protect the rights this time.
“We will not go to the Red Zone,” he vowed, and also asked the youth to stay mindful that no outside force was allowed to create lawlessness during the march.
Later, Senator Faisal Javed Khan took an oath from the marchers that they would continue struggling for ‘real independence’ and be ready to render any sacrifice. As the march began moving out of Liberty, Mr Khan announced he would lay the foundation stone for a journalism university in Punjab in memory of slain journalist Arshad Sharif.
Besides Lahorites, the marchers also included people from nearby cities like Kasur and Okara. Women and children could be seen lining the route waving party flags, while party songs blared from cars accompanying the procession. However, as the march proceeded on its designated route, the number of protesters kept thinning. The PTI’s social media team travelling along though continued posting updates of an ‘encouraging’ response at various points.
The first day of the march was scheduled to culminate at Shahdara, a suburb of Lahore, and continue its onward journey in the morning to reach Gujranwala to stay the second night on Saturday (today).
Meanwhile, as the ruling PML-N took potshots at Chief Minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi and his son former federal minister Moonis Elahi for staying absent from the PTI’s long march, Moonis tweeted: “Been sorting out preparations for welcoming Prime Minister Imran Khan in Gujrat”.
It may be mentioned that the younger Elahi had already said he would continue calling Mr Khan as the ruling prime minister.
Moreover, explaining the long march strategy, a PTI leader said the protesters would return home as the procession left Lahore. The party workers and supporters from Sheikhupura and Muridke would then take charge and move from Shahdara to Gujranwala for the second day.
Similarly, the march will be joined by workers and supporters from the respective city it enters while the others head back to their homes.
The workers and supporters from Lahore and other cities would rejoin the ‘Haqeeqi Azadi’ march as soon as it entered the twin cities.
Mobile internet blocked
On the other hand, people of Lahore experienced a brief suspension of mobile internet service in and around the city on Friday evening, apparently due to the PTI’s long march. The service was later resumed after a couple of hours.
A Pakistan Telecommunication Authority official told Dawn the government has the capability to block the services of all the cellular companies with just one click. He claimed they did not receive any intimation about the suspension. A private mobile company worker also confirmed that the decision to suspend internet service was taken at a ‘higher level’ and they did not receive any notice about it.