Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, who leads thousands of anti-government campaigners now protesting in Pakistan’s capital, tells Channel 4 News he has no connection to the army and just wants electoral reform.
Mr Qadri said he is protesting against the exclusivity of Pakistani politics, telling me: “about 2,000 families have hereditary rights to politics, and 99.9 per cent of the people of Pakistan are totally out of the democratic process.”
The cleric denies any personal ambition to be prime minister, now or in the future:
“I just want to empower my people, I am not here to empower myself; I just want electoral reforms, I just want democracy in letter and spirit to be in place, I just want the rule of law, I just want the human rights of the people to be protected.”
In 1999 Mr Qadri backed a military coup, and there have been fears that his protest movement could be a front for a new military takeover. He denied such charges saying “we have no connections with the army and I am totally against a military take-over.”
Mr Qadri claims to be leading one of the biggest marches in history, but the number of protestors attending his demonstrations was downplayed by a government spokesman who said there are no more than 15-20,000 people camped out in Islamabad.
And while the protests have brought the centre of Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad, to a standstill, the government is yet to give in to Mr Qadri’s demands that it should resign. The prime minister’s adviser Chaudhry Fawad Hussain told Channel 4 News: “Mr Qadri obviously has no legitimacy himself to say that – he is not a political leader, he is just the leader of one seminary.”
Meanwhile Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has disputed Tuesday’s shock ruling by the supreme court that he should be arrested on suspicion of corruption, and has gone to attend his son’s wedding.
With the stand-off between politicians and protestors ongoing, the Interior Minister Rehman Malik warned on Wednesday night that the authorities had learned that militants might be planning to target the crowd, and that Mr Qadri, would be held responsible for any attacks:
“The best commandos are with me today,” Mr Malik told a news conference, saying security forces could take action against Mr Qadri within the next two days to prevent “expected terrorism” adding “I hope that he listens to me.”