Imran Khan’s arrest will derail Pakistan’s democracy

Ejaz Akram, The Cradle, August 23 2022 — When the nation’s most popular leader in living memory is also the state’s public enemy number one, what will become of Pakistan?

Prominent defense analyst and former Pakistani military officer Haider Mehdi has vociferously claimed that Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa colluded with US authorities to topple the Imran Khan government on 9 April.

While much of the Pakistani masses and social media seem to think the same, the state’s mainstream media outlets have largely stayed mum on the biggest political scandal the country has witnessed in years.

Many who criticized the role of Pakistan’s military in the alleged coup – even without naming the collaborating officers specifically – have already fled the country. Some have been arrested, while others are facing legal charges.

One of the more notable and emotionally-charged cases has been that of Dr. Shahbaz Gill, a Pakistani-American academic and a close member of Imran Khan’s media team. Gill was charged with sedition against the state for making the argument on ARY News Network (a mainstream channel which was immediately shut down afterward) that military officers should not obey unlawful commands from their superiors.

Various senior military officers have already explained that Gill’s remarks are no serious offense because all military officers are already under oath to not obey unlawful commands by their superiors.

Gill was apprehended by authorities on 9 August and reportedly remained in federal government custody until his deteriorating medical condition forced his jailers to move him to a state hospital.

Khan said that he had been fooled by the very same state medical facility back in 2019 when courts were persuaded to allow former PM Nawaz Sharif to travel to the UK for urgent medical treatment, from which he never returned. Khan insisted on checking on Gill’s status himself, but was denied entry to the hospital.

According to the leadership of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Gill was apprehended without an arrest warrant, tortured, and sexually assaulted.

Under Pakistan’s Code of Criminal Procedure (CrCP), the maximum period of detention is 14 days – which for Gill would be today, 23 August – except for “terrorism specific cases,” in which custody can be extended for up to 90 days.

“The disparity in the period of detention under the CrPC and the ATA [Anti-Terrorism Act] is one of the many contributory factors of the high number of superfluous cases in the anti-terrorism courts of Pakistan, since the ATA gives more time to the police to complete investigation while detaining the accused,” writes the Research Society of International Law in its report on Pakistan.

Is Imran Khan next?

Which brings us to news of the arrest warrant on “terrorism” charges issued against Imran Khan himself.

The highly controversial charge against Khan, under section 7 of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act, followed Saturday’s mass rally in support of Gill. During his speech, Khan vowed to bring lawsuits against police and judicial authorities for their roles in Gill’s alleged torture: “We will not spare you … We will sue you,” he threatened.

The accusation appear frivolous to the extreme, especially when the prosecuting government’s cabinet is overwhelmingly composed of well-known indicted criminals and repeat offenders on charges that range from corruption to murder.

But government officials defended the “terrorism” charges against Khan, saying he “spread terror amongst the police and the judiciary” and hindered their work.

Pakistan’s ATA has come under fire by domestic lawyers as well as overseas organizations. It’s definitions are too broad, its powers too aggressive, its authorities too dangerous.

Pakistan’s abuse of terror laws

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says one of the “fundamental flaws” of the ATA “is the vague and overly broad definition of ‘terrorism’ under its provisions. This allows offenses bearing no nexus to militancy and proscribed terrorist networks to be tried.”

Up to 80 percent of those convicted of terrorism-related offenses under this act in Pakistan were accused of things that had nothing to do with “terrorism.”

Furthermore, the OHCHR cites observations from Pakistani lawyers that “political and economic influence serves as a primary determinant for whether an offense is tried under the ATA or under the ordinary criminal justice system.”

The report quotes lawyer Imran Asmat Chaudhry, a senior Advocate of the High Courts, saying:

“I have personally taken around 11 cases, which were sent to ATCs for trial. [The] motive behind all cases was personal enmity, political rivalry, or any other malignant intentions of the police themselves – even though the crime had no nexus to the ATA.”

The UN human rights group concludes: “The [ATA’s] broad definition under the law has often allowed it to be used as a tool of political victimization by ruling parties against opponents.”

Silencing media

Following the news of Khan’s arrest warrant, several Pakistani television channels were shut down and prominent journalist Jameel Farooqi was arrested and moved to an undisclosed location. According to analysts, such level of Praetorian politics and McCarthyism is unprecedented in Pakistan.

Pakistani social media activists have reported deployment of troops on high alert in major cities of Pakistan. The state has imposed a ban on Khan’s appearance on mainstream television networks, and Islamabad Police has announced that it will be no longer provide security services for Khan in the capital.

Sami Ibrahim, another prominent journalist from BOL TV that was struck off the air, says the next 48 hours will be crucial because actions for or against Khan’s arrest may take place. He believes some key decisions are likely to be made shortly, possibly including further restrictions, crackdowns, and persecution of social media platforms inside Pakistan.

In a potentially dangerous stand-off between state authorities and regular Pakistani citizens, most are wondering if the government has enough power to arrest the most popular leader in Pakistan’s recent history.

Khan’s PTI political party currently runs multiple governments in different Pakistani provinces. In stark contrast, the ruling party in the federal government – widely seen as a foreign installed government – is limited to the capital and is suffering from a major crisis in legitimacy, despite aggressive efforts to control the narrative.

Cracks form at the top

The current Pakistani government is in an impossible situation. It cannot call for early elections to help establish a public mandate of support, because all indications suggest an overwhelming win for Khan. And yet the very act of governing is a challenge without this mandate, especially given the ongoing public derision expressed in massive street protests and across social media.

In addition, the government of PM Shahbaz Sharif has its own internal divisions; these cracks are slowly becoming visible – and widening.

On 21 August, the PTI beat their opposing 13-party alliance with a decisive margin in Karachi’s by-election. Imran Khan has essentially already gone to the polls and won, because these massive election margins are taking place on the opposition’s own home ground.

Many of the ruling alliance members are fleeing provinces, where the PTI has formed provincial governments, in order to avoid potential legal charges. Some federal ministers have already escaped overseas.

According to prominent Pakistani analyst Nasir Ahmad: “General Bajwa and his senior generals have no idea how deeply the people of Pakistan, and indeed their own command, loathe them. The more insecure the generals feel, the more they dig their heels, and the closer they dig in their heels, and the closer they take their country, which they are oath-bound to defend, to its ultimate fall.”

Others, however, worry that if the state succeeds in arresting – or even assassinating Imran Khan – then nobody of similar stature and popularity will remain to lead Pakistan to safe shores. Mass movements require competent and legitimate leadership that can appropriately channel nations toward a politically constructive end, or else these numbers may just collapse upon themselves.

Since the alleged US-sponsored ousting of Imran Khan on 9 April, there hasn’t been a dull moment in Pakistani politics. It is as though the country grew a new head overnight:

Nobody could have imagined that the nation’s usually impartial military elite could be turned against the Pakistani masses and become the focus of widespread disdain. Nobody thought the military’s top brass would cozy up to New Delhi, all while when India amasses invasion-level troop build-ups in occupied Kashmir.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah stated on 22 August that Afghanistan is an ‘enemy country,’ signaling renewed Pakistani sycophancy in Washington’s latest war against the Taliban. Such decisions go diametrically against the will, interests, and decisions of the people of Pakistan.

A showdown between the majority – versus an increasingly unpopular and emboldened Pakistani elite – is inevitable in the near future.

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