Islamabad, Pakistan – Thousands of people have attended a rally in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore demanding basic rights for ethnic Pashtun citizens and others.
Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), addressed protesters on Sunday, calling for an end to enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and other alleged rights abuses committed by Pakistan’s military in its war against the Taliban.
“Pakistan’s constitution says that if anyone has committed a crime, arrest them and bring them before the courts within 24 hours,” said Pashteen.
“But thousands of Pashtuns have been killed extrajudicially.”
Pashteen, a native of the South Waziristan tribal district, once the birthplace of the Pakistan Taliban, led a movement that has expanded across the country in recent weeks to hold the military and government accountable for alleged excesses committed by security personnel.
The rally on Sunday was held in defiance of a government ban.
The provincial government denied permission for the rally “due to specific threats to the security of organisers of PTM”, according to a statement.
Police also briefly detained at least five PTM leaders, including vocal military critic Ali Wazir, on Saturday evening, PTM leader Mohsin Dawar told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the PTM, despite drawing thousands of supporters to its rallies, has received little coverage from Pakistan’s news television and print media.
Opinion articles on the group have been removed from several newspapers’ websites in recent days.
On Sunday, Pashteen appeared to blame Pakistan’s powerful military for the media blackout.
“Right now, why are there restrictions on the media, on their lips to be sealed?” asked Pashteen.
“They want to be able to continue to disappear people, to kill them extrajudicially, to establish their own rule rather than that of the constitution.”
The army has ruled the country for roughly half of its 70-year history since independence from Britain. Its decade-long war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has centred mainly on ethnic Pashtun areas.
While public criticism of the army is rare, the PTM’s rallies have been marked by the openness of its leaders to call out the security forces.
For its part, the army has been critical of the movement.
Last week, army chief General Qamar Bajwa said the protests were “engineered” by foreign forces, and said his concern was they could reverse the military’s gains against armed groups.
Pashteen denied the claim on Sunday, saying the PTM was “not anti-Pakistan” and was only demanding constitutional rights for the Pashtuns, who make up 15 percent of Pakistan’s 207 million people.
Those attending the rally said it had been a rare event for Lahore, the political heartland of the ruling PML-N political party.
Protesters managed to circumvent the apparent media blackout by posting live video streams on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
On Twitter, the hashtag #PashtunLongMarch2Lahore topped Pakistan’s countrywide trends on Sunday.
Others to address the gathering included leaders from the leftist Awami Workers Party (AWP), prominent rights activist and lawyer Hina Jilani and rights activist Amna Janjua.
“Just being at this rally was the most electrifying experience – this was not a political rally, it’s a civil rights one,” said Mubashir Zaidi, a television anchor and journalist.
“I have never seen this in Lahore ever before, this mix of students and teachers and just people who wanted to be a part of this movement for equal rights. It was truly electrifying.”