Leaders of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) defied a ban and went ahead with a mass protest in Lahore on Sunday, just hours after officials cracked down on the group.
Since launching three months ago, the PTM has rattled the military with a nationwide campaign calling for an end to extrajudicial killings, “disappearances” and other abuses by police and troops.
Despite a far-reaching media blackout the movement has drawn tens of thousands of supporters to their protests in one of the strongest challenges to Pakistan’s security establishment for years.
Late Saturday officials in Lahore detained PTM leaders along with representatives of the Awami Workers Party and student activists following raids on Punjab University and a hotel. A local police official confirmed the incident but said the activists have since been released.
The crackdown sparked anger on social media with the hashtags #ReleasePTMWorkers and #ShameOnPunjabPolice gaining traction.
PTM supporters from across the country have flocked to Lahore in recent days before the anticipated rally. The movement’s leader, Manzoor Pastheen, vowed to continue with the demonstration even after authorities refused to provide the necessary documentation, citing “security circumstances.”
“We won’t stay silent. We will hold the rally at any cost,” said Pashteen in a message posted early Sunday. The rally commenced around 4:00 p.m. at Lahore’s Mochi Gate.
The PTM came to prominence in February after the killing of a young social media star in Karachi unleashed festering anger at authorities over the alleged targeting of Pashtuns in the country’s long war on militancy. The military has accused the PTM of colluding with India and overseeing a campaign to destabilize the country.
However, the PTM argues that Pashtuns have bore the brunt of the long fight against terrorism. The “Pashtun belt” in the northwest bordering Afghanistan has suffered severely from militant violence for over a decade as the Afghan war spilt over the border, leading to repeated military operations in the region.
Pashtuns account for roughly 15 percent the population, with a majority of the 30 million-strong group living in the northwest.