27th September 2022
By Zain Ahmed
Protesting against politicians is an age-old tradition. In certain instances, it is commendable to voice disapproval and share one’s concerns with political leaders. But when it comes to name-calling, abusing, heckling, threatening – or worse – physically assaulting someone, it certainly goes beyond any acceptable form of protest.
On Monday 26th Sept 2022, Rashid Nasrullah the personal secretary of PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif was attacked and beaten by three men in Ilford.
Nasrullah posted on Twitter: “Another day, another incident of thuggery. When I was on my way to the office, Imran Niazi’s thugs attacked me, and threatened to kill me with a knife”.
A day earlier on Sunday, in a viral video, a group of angry Pakistanis from the London diaspora community could be seen surrounding PML-N leader and Information Minister, Marriyum Aurangzeb. The incident took place at Pret a Manger, a sandwich shop, which hardly seems like a suitable site for even a friendly intervention, let alone a political one. Nevertheless, it did not stop the impassioned crowd out for what they call a “political revolution” and they flanked her on either side, shouting and jeering at her.
The disgruntled group was brandishing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf flags and caps, and began shouting accusations at the federal minister and her party of corruption. A dozen men and women followed Aurangzeb out into the street chanting “chorni, chorni, chorni” (thief) and yelling that she had “looted Pakistan”.
One woman demanded to know how Aurangzeb could dictate policies in Pakistan when she did not even cover her head while being in the UK. Another man was constantly yelling at her through a megaphone. All the others jeered and yelled and all this while they were making videos of the minister on their phones.
The mere fact that the unruly group – too small to be a mob, but seemingly with similar mannerisms – had brought their flags and had ‘dressed for the occasion’ as they say, complete with a megaphone and party caps, shows the incident to be completely pre-meditated.
If anyone emerged as a ‘hero’ it was Marriyum Aurangzeb, who in the face of it all remained calm and composed, almost unfazed as she is seen smiling and sipping her coffee, ultimately winding her way through the crowd.
Despite the seriousness of the incident, however, not one politician from the protestors’ party made any public statement to denounce the happening. Only one leader Sher Ali Arbab made a statement sometime later.
“We have serious political differences with PML-N and its politics however its condemnable how Marriyum Aurangzeb was treated in London. Politics and harassment should be poles apart. Women across the political spectrum should be treated with respect.”
The party leader however said nothing.
Journalists, activists and others are perturbed by the incident as it marks yet another event in which a group of Pakistanis have attempted to harass and intimidate a political figure abroad.
Admittedly, if one does want to reprimand a Pakistani politician it makes some sense to do so in a foreign land since they are less likely to be surrounded by their bodyguards and it is less dangerous than doing so in the home turf. Nevertheless, such impassioned protests are not always without consequences abroad either. It is useful to be aware of the country’s laws before thinking of taking such steps.
England and Wales
In England, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, it is an offence to use threatening, abusing or insulting words or behaviour, or display visible representations. Any persons accused of such conduct will have to demonstrate their actions were reasonable and in accordance with freedom of expression and other freedoms. Culprits may even be prosecuted if deemed necessary and proportionate.
A man in Edinburgh was charged with ‘breach of the peace’ over heckling Prince Andrew walked behind Queen Elizabeth’s II coffin. “Andrew”, the shout was heard, “you’re a sick old man”.
BREAKING: Prince Andrew heckled by a protester during Queen’s coffin procession pic.twitter.com/dtoJxtiqOU
— PoliticsJOE (@PoliticsJOE_UK) September 12, 2022
Moreover, following and repeatedly going after someone may lead to the offence of harassment under the Protection of Harassment Act 1997. Liability is based on the course of conduct which amounts to harassment, and the person knows it’s harassment or they ought to know. Such a ‘course of conduct is fact-specific depending on the period and severity of the harassment. Consequently, Pakistani political ‘revolutionaries’ need to be aware of their actions.
Some countries are less tolerant of such displays of political zealousness. Under Saudi law, political dissent and demonstrations against the state or state guests create criminal liability. In April, a group of Pakistani pilgrims in Saudi Arabia accosted, heckled and chanted slogans against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his entourage at Masjid-i-Nabwi in Madina. The highly controversial incident led to Saudi officials arresting 150 people and charging six for “violating the regulations” and “disrespecting the sanctity” of the holy mosque.
Three of the accused were sentenced to 10 years in prison while the rest were handed eight years imprisonment. Additionally, the Madinah court imposed a fine of 20,000 Ryals on each of them and confiscated their mobile phones.
In the UAE any kind of demonstration or protest is illegal as is the misuse or out-of-context activity on social media. The Pakistani Embassy had to remind Pakistanis in the emirates of this rule earlier this year when Imran Khan planned a rally there.
Under Article 210 of the 2021 Federal Crime and Punishment Law “participating in a gathering of at least five people in a public space with the intention of rioting or disrupting the implementation of laws and regulations” can result in 3 years in prison. The penalty increases to a minimum of 5 years in prison if the gathering results in rioting or disruption of peace or public security. Heckling and protests by even a small group in the UAE can lead to arrests.
Furthermore, Dubai’s cybercrime law criminalizes photographing or making videos of someone whether in public or private, without their permission. Under the Federal Decree-Law No.5 Combating Cybercrimes 2012 such a violation of privacy can result in at least 6 months in jail and/or a fine between Dh150,000 to Dh500,000.
In Turkey protests and demonstrations are prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the relevant authorities as per Law No.2911. Nevertheless, harassment, abuse and physical intimidation of anyone can result in arrest.
On April 10, 27 Pakistani students were arrested in Istanbul for protesting Imran Khan’s ouster. The students were released on the grounds they had proper legal residence permits and no other criminal records.
Cradle of Free Speech
Consequently, the cradle of free speech varies across countries. While at most times a breach of etiquette is not a breach of law, however, the lines may be crossed when heckling turns to harassment and abuse turns to assault. In the latter cases, protesters may find themselves facing serious sanctions.
The recent increase in heckling and sloganeering between Pakistani political parties and their followers has created much divisiveness. Aggrieved protesters, however, must be reminded that criticism in a respectful manner is warranted but harassment is not. If hecklers want their voice to be heard, they must let it be heard through their votes.