By Saeed Shah/Wall Street Journal
Islamabad, May 25: Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said authorities are dismantling his opposition party, rocking a country that has been plagued by political instability and casting a shadow over its fragile democracy.
The government said this week that it was considering a ban on Khan's party, after his arrest on corruption charges earlier this month set off violent protests that targeted military installations. Thousands of Khan's supporters have been arrested-including dozens of senior party members-on charges ranging from disturbing public order to murder and terrorism.
Khan's party poses a political threat to the government, which must hold elections by October, following the end of the Parliament's five-year term. Polls show Khan is the most popular politician in Pakistan.
The nuclear-armed nation of more than 220 million people has been embroiled in political and economic turmoil for more than a year, following Khan's ouster as prime minister. Beset by a heavy debt burden and dwindling foreign reserves, the government has been teetering at the edge of default and trying to convince the International Monetary Fund to restart a bailout that was suspended while Khan was in power.
Khan was released three days after he was arrested on May 9 and remains at his home in the eastern city of Lahore. The wave of detentions, however, is beginning to take a toll on his party. After being released from prison this week, senior party figures said they were quitting, in what Khan called“forced divorces.” Those included the party's secretary-general and two of its most well-known faces, the former information and human-rights ministers.
The police are searching for other senior party members in hiding. A prominent journalist who advocated for Khan has been missing since May 12. Sami Ibrahim, another news anchor known for his pro-Khan views, disappeared Wednesday, according to his channel, Bol News.
The government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said that members of Khan's party“crossed a red line” when they damaged military property in the wake of his arrest and that those involved are being dealt with according to the law. That includes putting those who attacked military installations on trial in military courts, where proceedings won't be open to the public.
Khan, a former cricket star, had taken on Pakistan's powerful military more directly than others had dared. He branded the then-army chief a traitor, accusing him of working with his political rivals to remove him from office in April 2022.
After Khan's arrest, the government said his supporters attacked military properties across the country, from the gates of the army headquarters in the northern city of Rawalpindi, to the offices of the military's spy agency in the eastern city of Faisalabad. The official home of the top general in Lahore was ransacked and set on fire. Monuments to soldiers killed in combat were also broken. Khan's party has condemned the attacks.
Pakistan's military, the world's sixth biggest, has ruled the country directly for long periods, with the most recent dictatorship ending in 2008. Mass trials of civilians in military courts were last held in the early 1980s, under the rule of Gen. Zia
Haq. But even when not formally in power, the army wields huge influence. That clout has often been secured by grooming politicians and trying to ensure that no party gains a majority in parliament, as coalitions are easier to manipulate.
Taimur Jhagra, a former provincial minister from Khan's party, who is in hiding, said the aim of the crackdown is to fracture his political party and to shackle its performance in the election.
“This feels like we have gone back to the 1980s, almost as if the democratic process will have to begin again,” said Jhagra, speaking over an encrypted app.“But there is always a path back to power when you have a popular vote bank. I think that support for Imran Khan remains intact.”
Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said the majority of those arrested were now out on bail. He said that most will be put on trial in civilian courts, including the antiterrorism courts.
“We are being very careful in identifying people, so that there is no finger pointing later that we were settling some political score,” Asif said.“Very few people will be tried in military courts, only when there is absolutely solid evidence against them.”
Officials from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, two of the country's four provinces, said 27 people had been cleared for military trials so far.
Hina Jilani, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent organization, said that the government was justified in enforcing the law for acts such as arson, but that it was casting the net too wide and that the use of military courts was unacceptable.
“My major concern is that the military, which had in the recent past seemed to be on the back foot, has found an excuse for not being neutral anymore,” said Jilani.
Pakistan's other political parties have had confrontations with the military in the past, which have sometimes led to imprisonment for politicians. The country's first elected prime minister was executed by the military after a coup in the late 1970s.
The nation's other two major political parties made a pact in 2006 not to use the military against each other. Khan declined to join such an arrangement.
The military said that it interfered in politics in the past but is politically neutral now.
Since his ouster, Khan has had dozens of criminal cases registered against him, with allegations ranging from corruption and blasphemy to murder. He denies any wrongdoing, saying these are politically motivated accusations. Any conviction would bar him from becoming prime minister again. He was shot in the leg in an assassination attempt. But his political momentum hadn't been broken until the violent protests this month.
Khan has rejected suggestions that he will go into exile, an often-favored path for Pakistani political leaders who fall out with the military. He has called for talks with the armed forces.
“You can't kill an ideology through oppression,” Khan said in a video message to supporters this week.“But while throwing out Imran Khan, they are destroying our country.”
The political unrest has destabilized a close economic partner of China. Beijing, Islamabad's biggest single foreign lender, took the unusual step of commenting on the internal affairs of another country when its Foreign Minister Qin Gang called for an end to the political infighting during a visit to the Pakistani capital earlier this month.“We sincerely hope the political forces in Pakistan will build consensus, uphold stability,” he said.
Khan, who once accused the U.S. of being behind a conspiracy to remove him, has appealed to Washington for help, contacting members of Congress in recent weeks. He has urged the U.S. to stand against what he said are human-rights violations in Pakistan.
“Pakistani politics are a matter for the Pakistani people,” said a State Department spokesperson.