Imran Khan’s Arrest and Pakistan’s Struggle for Democracy Features
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Imran Khan’s Arrest and Pakistan’s Struggle for Democracy

American author Edward Bellamy once described history as a cyclical process that “returned to the point of beginning”, claiming “the idea of indefinite progress in a right line was a chimera of the imagination, with no analog in nature.” Unfortunately, this perfectly encapsulates the current state of affairs in Pakistan. Politics in Pakistan seem to be stuck in a time warp where political parties take turns in leading their crusade against the autocratic military establishment to restore democracy, only to align themselves with the very institution they swore to fight – until, of course, their interests diverge once again.

This time around, it was the establishment’s former poster boy Imran Khan leading the charge. Since his ouster, Khan, once a close ally of the military, began vehemently opposing them, claiming that they were responsible for removing him from power. Tapping into the public’s deep-seated resentment over an abysmal economy, a broken political system, and an unelected entity holding outsized influence over successive governments, Khan rallied his supporters against the ruling government and the military establishment, demanding that early and fair elections be held.

Despite Khan’s incendiary statements, the former premier – unlike civilian leaders before him – was not immediately arrested. His initial rallies following his ouster were met with surprising tolerance. However, it soon became apparent that a large segment of the population resonated with his anti-army rhetoric. As the year progressed, Khan was slapped with countless cases, including charges of corruption, terrorism, and blasphemy, in an attempt by the civilian government and establishment to disqualify him from politics.

On the 9th of May, after several months of successfully avoiding detention, Imran Khan was arrested on corruption charges by a throng of rangers on the premises of the Islamabad High Court. The charges against Khan relate to the Al-Qadir Trust case, which pertains to an investigation launched by the UK’s National Crime Agency into money laundered by Malik Riaz Hussain – Pakistan’s infamous property tycoon. The investigation alleges that Malik Riaz gave land to the Al-Qadir University Trust which was headed by Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to the country’s treasury. Khan denied these charges and claimed that the land had been donated for charitable purposes. Khan and members of his party have maintained that the charges against him have no legal standing and are politically motivated.

Although tensions between Khan’s supporters and the military had been festering over the past few months, it reached a crescendo following the former premier’s arrest, with thousands of citizens storming the streets throughout the country. Protestors torched and attacked government buildings, and private and official vehicles, and clashed with security forces. Military installations and property were specifically targeted, including the Corps Commander’s residence which was raided by protestors who first damaged and looted the property, and then set it on fire. Moreover, they even breached army headquarters – a symbol of the military’s strength and perhaps one of the most protected areas within Pakistan.

In response, the federal government authorized the deployment of military troops to maintain the law and order situation across the capital city as well as the provinces of Punjab and KP. Khan was eventually released three days later on protective bail after the Supreme Court ruled that his arrest was “illegal and invalid”. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif criticized the SC ruling, claiming that the corruption case against Khan was legitimate but “the judiciary has become a stone wall protecting him.”

In the midst of all this chaos, the establishment capitalized on the violent protests by reasserting control in the country – cracking down on PTI leaders and activists alike. Thousands of protestors have been arrested, with those involved in targeting military property being tried under military courts. This past Thursday, an anti-terrorism court in Lahore ordered over 16 people, including a former PTI MPA, to be handed over to military courts.

Once again, at a time of political turmoil, the establishment has violated the constitutional rights of its citizens, by invoking the draconian Army Act. Military courts are an independent body and have no links to the country’s civil legal system. The panel of judges is composed of members of the military’s legal department, meaning they are not qualified judges. If an individual is convicted, they have no right to appeal their case in a civilian court. Furthermore, the trials are held in secrecy, so the information regarding the charges or evidence against the suspects is not made available to the public. Thus, it effectively deprives citizens of the right to a fair trial and undermines the independence of a civilian judiciary.

Several members of PTI were also targeted. The establishment – in a bid to dismantle the party – repeatedly arrested and rearrested PTI leaders despite court orders demanding their release. The intimidation tactics seem to have taken a toll, leading to a mass exodus from the party. The resignation speeches by PTI members have a common theme – they denounce the May 9th protests and claim that they have decided to leave the party of their own volition. The list of members resigning seems to grow by the day, with prominent members such as Fawad Chaudhry and Shireen Mazari parting ways with Khan to avoid further persecution. This puts Khan in a precarious position, considering most of his party’s top brass has abandoned ship. In response Khan fired back at the establishment, stating that they had used coercive tactics to dismember his party. His accusations, of course, are not without grounds. It is clear Khan crossed the line by provoking citizens to revolt against the army, and now the establishment is hellbent on permanently removing him from the political sphere, with the coalition government aiding the establishment’s narrative as a strategy to eliminate their political opponent.

Although the sitting government is enabling the army’s actions, some believe that Khan has no intention to bring an end to military involvement in politics. Despite his open claims of military and intelligence agencies in Pakistan being above the law, and highlighting their oppressive practices – he still seems to be making an effort to repair the strained relationship. In an interview following his release Khan, after stating on numerous occasions that the security agencies were responsible for his arrest – told a foreign journalist “It’s not the security agencies, it’s one man – the army chief…the army is getting maligned because of one man…”  Khan’s erratic and flippant statements are suggestive of that fact that he may be trying to sow division within the military establishment’s leadership, in an attempt to lay the groundwork for his return to power.

The country’s tumultuous state of affairs seems to have no definitive end. The events of May 9th have brought Pakistan’s military back to the forefront. True to form, the establishment has used methods of coercion, force, and censorship to intimidate the opposition and its supporters into submission. At its side, is the coalition government which once raised slogans of reclaiming democracy and ending military involvement in politics.

On the other hand, although Khan’s party has been weakened, he retains the support of the people. Furthermore, the establishment’s aggressive response has drastically shifted its image in the eyes of the public. Their actions, and by extension – the actions of the coalition government – have widely been perceived as a threat to civilian supremacy. However, Imran Khan is not the revolutionary his supporters believe he is. His opposition to the military is based on a personal vendetta rather than a genuine conviction to uphold democracy. Khan’s stint as PM was marked by violations of civil liberties, the persecution of political opponents, media censorship, and a blatant disregard for procedures of parliamentary democracy.

The country’s fight to safeguard democracy has been going on for decades, and yet, there seems to be no win in sight. The cycle of challenging the establishment and then aligning with them to gain power continues. Both Khan and the coalition government have allied themselves with the establishment for political power. The only difference seems to be that Khan is not against continued military involvement, so long as it benefits him. The coalition government, however, from an ideological standpoint believes in democracy and has made successful efforts of curbing military involvement in the past. Their current alliance with the military is simply strategic, and will likely end as soon as Khan is disqualified. However, this begs the question – to what lengths are political parties willing to go? The jailing of political opponents and the deterioration of civil liberties cannot be justified by political gain. Every political entity knows that democratic institutions cannot flourish until the military is completely removed from the political sphere. The question is, will they do it?

Rabia Shuja holds an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Griffith College, Dublin and is Chief Correspondent for JURIST in Pakistan. She reports from Islamabad.