ISLAMABAD: Rebuking the Punjab government for not “properly” handling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) public meetings, Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday directed authorities concerned to take stern action against opposition leaders, including the lodging of first information reports (FIRs), if they hold a public meeting in Lahore on Dec 13 and violate coronavirus related preventive guidelines.

Presiding over a federal cabinet meeting, the prime minister decided to give permission to the PDM to hold a public meeting in Lahore but was unhappy with the way the Punjab government had “handled” the opposition during preparations for the PDM rally in Multan on Nov 30. A participant of the meeting said that the prime minister was of the view that the Punjab government had half-heartedly made attempts to stop people from attending the Multan rally though it did not give permission to the PDM leaders to hold the public meeting.

He quoted the prime minister as saying the “Punjab government mishandled the issue; as a result the opposition’s protest continued for three to four days instead of a one-day jalsa”.

Information Minister Shibli Faraz, in a post-cabinet meeting press conference, said the government would lodge FIRs against the organisers of public meetings and leaders of political parties for violating coronavirus related standard operating procedures (SOPs) and guidelines.

“The government would not stop the people from participating in the coming political gathering of PDM in Lahore. However, action would be taken against those who instigate the people to violate the health guidelines,” he said. “When something illegal is committed, a case should be filed. The opposition is acting illegally by holding public meetings this is why they should be held accountable,” he said.

The minister said public gatherings amid the second wave of coronavirus pandemic not only posed grave threat to the lives of the people, but were also a violation of the court orders that had imposed ban on such activities. In an official press release issued by the Prime Minister Office, Mr Khan said holding public meeting was contempt of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) that had ordered against holding public meetings during the epidemic.

Mr Faraz said holding public meetings was also a violation of the government’s instructions and the SOPs formulated in light of the recommendations of the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC). According to the press release, Prime Minister Khan expressed worry that 67 people had died because of coronavirus on Tuesday, the highest figure of deaths reported during the second wave of the Covid-19 in Pakistan.

The information minister said the opposition parties with their political gatherings were damaging the economy. The United States with a population of 320 million could not have controlled coronavirus, he said. On the other hand, Pakistan did well by successfully tackling the virus, keeping the economy moving and protecting the livelihoods of people.

Mr Faraz said despite the over-burdened healthcare system in the country, the government had tackled the first wave of the virus in a very effective manner by improving government hospitals’ infrastructure and successfully implementing the SOPs. He appealed to the people to stay away from the opposition’s public gatherings and follow the guidelines of the NCOC, which were based on the experts’ recommendations and scientific studies.

“The opposition’s activities are not favourable to the businesses and national progress at a time when economy is on an upward trajectory, industry is being revived and the people are getting job opportunities,” he added. Mr Faraz said it was unfortunate that the PDM leadership held a public meeting in Multan despite reservations expressed by the government and state institutions.

Mr Faraz rejected the claim of PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz that she did not have any property in London or even in Pakistan.