A mob of two hundred lawyers attacked the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) in Lahore, Pakistan, on Wednesday, causing at least 12 deaths, several of them critical care patients whose treatments were interrupted by the riot.
The swarm of lawyers was armed with firebombs and a number of handguns. Police cars were set ablaze during their confrontation with riot police, while the hospital suffered damage to windows, doors, and delicate equipment inside.
Some of the patient fatalities occurred when doctors and nurses fled to escape the attacking lawyers. Eyewitnesses reported some of the lawyers deliberately ripped oxygen masks and IV tubes off patients as they rampaged through the facility, although those claims are still under investigation.
A provincial official who arrived on the scene to negotiate with the mob was physically attacked. Video of the assault showed the lawyers tearing the minister’s clothes off and pummeling him with their fists. The minister, Fayyazul Hasan Chohan, is reportedly filing kidnapping charges against his assailants.
Early reports held that three or four patients died during the altercation, although later accounts suggested there were more fatalities. The battle between lawyers, police, and doctors raged for hours until the situation was brought under control with the help of regional military troops.
Several dozen lawyers have been arrested, with more arrests promised as the attackers are identified from video footage. Most of the lawyers were able to flee the scene before they could be rounded up, dashing into a local park and setting a police van on fire as they departed.
“Absolutely horrifying that those supposed to act in accordance with the law chose to become terrorists when they attacked PIC in Lahore, killing patients in the process,” said human rights minister Shireen Mazari.
Mazari referred to the accounts of lawyers deliberately “murdering” patients by pulling off their oxygen masks and called it “sheer terrorism, nothing less.”
The bizarre rampage was touched off by a scuffle on Tuesday that sounds like a comedy skit gone horribly wrong: a lawyer demanded priority treatment at the hospital, the doctors said no, and the lawyer marched off to the local police station to demand they arrest the recalcitrant doctors on terrorism charges.
When the police said no, the infuriated lawyer returned to the hospital with some of his colleagues for a confrontation with the doctors, who filmed the ensuing confrontation and posted the video online with commentary mocking the lawyers. The following day, a mob of two hundred enraged lawyers descended upon the hospital and began trashing everything from parked cars to medical equipment.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and the chief minister of Punjab, Usman Buzdar, were briefed on the riot and are said to be involved in coordinating the response. Buzdar said on Wednesday he would travel to Lahore to collect reports from the local authorities.
“Such an incident at a hospital for cardiology is intolerable. To create hurdles for patients receiving treatment is inhumane and a criminal act,” Buzdar said.
“The manhandling of provincial minister Fayyazul Hassan Chauhan, vandalism and harassment of poor patients and their attendants is extremely condemnable and regrettable. Those who wear the uniform of law will have to obey the law,” an aide to Prime Minister Khan added on Wednesday.
Both Khan and Buzdar came in for some criticism for failing to understand how serious tensions between doctors and lawyers had become in Lahore, beginning long before the confrontation on Tuesday that exploded into Wednesday’s violence.
Those tensions do not appear to have subsided. Doctors in Punjab spoke of going on strike Thursday, and possibly taking their strike nationwide. The vice chair of the Pakistan Bar Council, Syed Amjad Shah, condemned the violence but described it as “the individual act of a few lawyers” while blaming the doctors for starting the fight by “misbehaving.”