Pakistan MPs escape parliament blockade through backdoor

Anti-government cleric told supporters, angered by corruption claims, not to let anyone pass

Thousands of Pakistani protesters tried to blockade parliament today after an anti-government cleric told them not to allow anyone in or out. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif was inside at the time, but he and other lawmakers left through a back entrance.

The protesters have taken to the streets of Islamabad for five days, led by cricket star turned opposition leader Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri, who runs a network of Islamic schools and charities.

Both want Mr Sharif to resign over allegations of corruption and election rigging. The Supreme Court has summoned both to appear before the court tomorrow.

The peaceful protests have raised questions over the stability of the nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people. Its civilian government is struggling to assert its authority after decades when the country swung between democracy and military rule.

The coup-prone nation is also plagued by high unemployment, daily power cuts and a Taliban insurgency. Anti-Western and violent sectarian groups are gaining strength.

Most protesters say they are demonstrating against government corruption, which they blame for the country’s widespread poverty.

Last night, protesters used cranes and bolt cutters to dismantle police barricades and surround parliament. Today, Qadri urged the crowd to barricade lawmakers and the prime minister inside as they met to discuss the crisis.

“Don’t let all those inside come out and don’t let anyone go in,” he told supporters.

His exhausted followers, some carrying blankets or colourful umbrellas, were resting in the shade on the grass on Constitution Avenue when he spoke. But they immediately rose to block the entrance to parliament.

Riot police and paramilitary forces in the area did not intervene and Qadri urged the crowd to remain peaceful.

“If you and the army come face to face, don’t raise your hand. If you do, you will not be welcome amongst us,” he said.

Legislators left parliament by a back entrance. Lawmaker Marvi Memon, from the ruling party, said every parliamentarian present had denounced the protests and offered support to the government.

“This affront to parliamentary democracy has been noted,” she said. “This is only a handful of people and they do not represent the will of the people.”

Parliament would reconvene tomorrow, she said.

But Mr Khan has given Mr Sharif until 8 pm (3pm GMT) today to resign or face an invasion of protesters at the prime minister’s official residence.

“Now no police nor army will stop us,” he told supporters. If Mr Sharif did not step down, he said, “we will come to the prime minister’s house”.

The military, which often acts as an arbiter when it is not ruling directly, has called for a political solution to the crisis.

"Situation requires patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue in larger national and public interest," military spokesman General Asim Bajwa tweeted as the protesters approached parliament.

Reuters