By Gordon Fairclough and Saeed Shah
Islamabad, May 27: Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan-effectively held under house arrest by the army-backed government-said his country was under an“undeclared martial law.”
In a telephone interview from his police-ringed home in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, Khan said,“All the movement toward democracy-that is under threat,” and added:“This could roll back everything.”
Democracy in Pakistan has had a stop-start journey, punctuated by four periods of direct military rule. The country has had its longest run of elected governments since Gen. Pervez Musharraf relinquished power in 2008, but the shift to civilian authority has proven hard to sustain.
Political turmoil has worsened the country's precarious economic situation. Inflation is running at over 35%. Foreign reserves are dwindling. The government, teetering on the edge of default, is trying to persuade the International Monetary Fund and ally China to come to the rescue.
Khan, a former cricket star, was ousted after a parliamentary no-confidence vote in 2022 that he says was engineered by the opposition and military. Since then, as Pakistan's economy has struggled, his popularity among voters has soared and he has become a vocal critic of the army's role in politics.
Authorities arrested Khan on corruption charges earlier this month, setting off at-times violent protests that took aim at the armed forces. The authorities have since arrested thousands of Mr. Khan's supporters, including dozens of senior members of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Some are facing trials in military courts, others are to be tried by special terrorism courts. Khan himself was released from custody after a Supreme Court ruling but has been confined to his home for weeks.
The government says it is weighing banning Khan's party, saying violence by his supporters had crossed a red line. May 9 protests in some cases turned into riots, with military compounds ransacked and set on fire and monuments to fallen soldiers defaced.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who succeeded Khan after he was ousted, on Friday compared the crowd's actions to the storming of Capitol Hill in 2021 by supporters of former President Donald Trump, saying that punishing rioters was equally justified in Pakistan.
The government has prohibited protests and moved to restrict access to social media. Regional elections due earlier this year have yet to be held. And it is unclear whether a national vote, due by October, will go ahead.
“It seems their mind is made up. They've decided I can't be allowed to come to power,” Khan said.“They will either jail me or they'll try to eliminate me.”
He has called for talks with the authorities to reach a political agreement including a date to hold new elections.
Khan survived an assassination attempt in November, which left him with three bullet wounds in the leg. He blames the military and the government for the shooting, which they deny. The government says a gunman apprehended at the scene is a religious fanatic who acted alone.
Prosecutors have leveled a series of charges against Khan, including allegations of murder and corruption. He denies any wrongdoing.
Khan says his internet connection is being frequently cut. His call with The Wall Street Journal was also disrupted. Television channels say they are not showing his speeches, delivered over YouTube, under pressure from the authorities.
When in office, Khan initially emphasized that his government worked in coordination with the country's powerful military, arguably Pakistan's strongest institution. The military admits to interfering in politics in the past but now says it is neutral.
But Khan eventually fell out with the then army chief in a tussle. He says it was because he refused to drop corruption cases against opposition politicians.
Since Khan's ouster, he has waged an unprecedented and unrelenting lambasting of the military. His supporters, previously known as the most pro-military of the major political parties, also embraced his new criticism.
Public-opinion polls consistently show that Khan is Pakistan's most popular politician.
Khan initially also blamed the U.S. for his removal from power, saying Washington pushed the Pakistan army to dismiss him. He is now appealing to Washington and other Western governments to call out what he says are human-rights abuses in Pakistan.
“It's important that those who preach democracy, human rights and rule of law make their voices heard,” Khan said.
Washington, which had denied any link to Khan's removal, says that Pakistani politics is a matter for the Pakistani people.
Pakistan's interior minister, Rana Sanaullah Khan, said Friday that more than 10,000 people had been arrested in connection with the pro-Khan protests on May 9, including nearly 4,000 who are facing terrorism charges.
He said so far 33 suspects had been handed over to be tried in military courts. Of those not facing terrorism charges, he said most had been released on bail.
“We are not being unjust. This is what the law demands in these circumstances,” said the interior minister.
Khan's party alleges that family members of party activists are being picked up to force them to surrender to the authorities or turn on their leader. The interior minister said that harassment of female family members isn't permitted and, if that is taking place, it is wrong.
Privately, government officials say they aren't in charge of the drive against Khan's party.
This week, Khan's senior party figures started broadcasting statements saying they were quitting, including a former human-rights minister and some of Khan's other staunchest backers, after a spell in jail.
Khan has called them“forced divorces.”
On Friday, that steady drumbeat turned into an avalanche of resignations from the party. News conferences took place across the country, with party members condemning violence earlier this month and announcing they were quitting. There were so many such press appearances that channels were at times showing two at the same time on a split screen.
Murad Raas, a former provincial education minister, with tears in his eyes, said Friday that“I never thought this day would come.”
Meanwhile raids continued to find more members of the party who went into hiding this month. Hammad Azhar, a former finance minister, said when security officials burst into his home Friday, only his mother was there.
Early Saturday, the exit rush was joined by Ali Zaidi, a close friend of Khan who had served as a cabinet minister. Just days earlier, Zaidi had appeared to veer off script when briefly released from jail, telling a hastily arranged roadside press conference that he would have to be shot in the head to get him out of the party.
He was taken away by waiting police. He said Saturday that he had taken the difficult decision to leave politics altogether, ending a video message from an undisclosed location, with“long live the Pakistan army.”
-Waqar Gillani contributed to this article.