Rabia Shuja holds an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Griffith College, Dublin and is a Staff Correspondent for JURIST in Pakistan. She reports from Islamabad.
On the 21st of August former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was charged under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act. The charges against Khan are a culmination of escalating tensions between himself and the current government as well as the military establishment.
The months following the vote of no confidence that ousted Khan in April have proven to be tumultuous, and have thrown the country into deeper political chaos. Since his ouster, Khan has held country-wide protests. He drew upon growing distrust and anger towards Pakistan’s political system, as well as the current economic crisis, to rally his supporters against his political opponents. In recent weeks such rallies have not only grown larger, but have directly targeted the very entity that brought him to power: Pakistan’s military establishment.
Khan’s increased popularity coupled with the victory of his PakistanTehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in recent by-elections emboldened him to double down on his anti-establishment rhetoric. Despite the mounting criticism, the military refrained from retaliating. This changed when Khan’s Chief of Staff, Shahbaz Gill went on ARY – a private news channel – and claimed that most lower-ranking soldiers support Khan, and that the government has actively been attempting to create a divide between them. Gill further suggested that army officers should disobey the orders of their superiors if they are deemed illegal or unconstitutional. It was this statement that spurred the military establishment into action.
Following his statements ARY was taken off the air, and a senior network executive was arrested. The next day Gill himself was arrested and charged with sedition for inciting mutiny within the ranks of the Pakistan Army. The government then began cracking down on journalists who criticised the establishment as well as allies of Khan. Gill’s arrest caused outrage within PTI and its supporters, which eventually resulted in Imran Khan holding a mass rally in Islamabad on the 20th of August to protest the arrest of Shahbaz Gill. In his speech, Khan claimed that Gill was tortured and sexually abused in police custody. These allegations have been vehemently denied by senior government officials as well as the police. While addressing the crowd, the former PM pledged to take legal action against the police for the torture of Gill, as well as additional district and sessions judge Zeba Chaudhry, who had approved the two-day physical remand of Gill on the request of Islamabad police. He claimed that the judiciary had been biased against his party, and that there were going to be consequences. He told a sea of his supporters that the treatment of Gill proved that there was no rule of law in Pakistan. The following day, Khan was booked under Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act.
After the news regarding the charges against Khan broke, hundreds of his supporters assembled outside his house in Bani Gala and threatened to take over Islamabad if the police tried to arrest him. Many political analysts and lawyers feared that Khan’s arrest would lead to violent protests across the country.
The charges have exacerbated the confrontation between the former Premier and the government. Many believe that booking Khan under the Anti-Terrorism Act has been a concerted effort by the government and military establishment to curtail his chances of making a political comeback. Khan’s popularity seems to have rattled Shehbaz Sharif’s government as well as the military establishment. However, their efforts to suppress Imran Khan’s political prospects seem to have backfired, and have only made him more popular amongst the public. This is evident in PTI’s win in the Karachi by-elections. Ali Zaidi, a former federal minister, stated that the result of the by-elections prove that the people of Pakistan are behind Imran Khan, and that if the government made any moves to arrest him, his supporters would “block the whole country.”
On Monday, the 22nd of August, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) granted Khan protective bail for three days with an order to seek bail from the sessions court before the expiry of the three-day period. On the 25th, an anti-terrorism court granted Khan interim bail until the 1st of September. Although Khan’s popularity is at its peak, he has several legal cases against him. Since being granted bail for the anti-terrorism case, two more criminal cases have been filed against him, the first being a contempt of court case, and another on unlawful assembly. PTI asserts that these cases against their party leader are politically manufactured to muzzle the opposition.
The irony behind Khan’s image of being an anti-establishment leader who is taking on Pakistan’s powerful military and safeguarding the right to dissent is that when those same institutions were bringing him into power, he seemed to have no issue with the establishment circumventing the rule of law and stifling political dissent. When Khan’s government was in power, his political opponents, journalists, and activists were jailed under corruption, sedition, and terrorism charges. The truth of the matter is that Pakistan has a history of governments using sedition and terrorism charges to curtail political speech, the only difference now is that Imran Khan is on the receiving end.
Nonetheless, the case against Khan under the Anti-Terrorism Act seems to hold no merit. When Khan claimed that he would take action against the judge and the police responsible for the arrest of Shahbaz Gill he was clearly referring to legal action. Although his comments could be perceived as hostile and irresponsible, they did not amount to an act of terrorism. Moreover, with the current political polarisation in the country it would be unwise to convict him as his supporters have made it clear that they would retaliate, which is something the government cannot afford. Considering the weak case against him and the fact that Khan still retains some support from the judiciary, it is likely that the Courts may acquit him.
Although Khan may escape conviction under the Anti-Terrorism Act, there are other legal proceedings that may put an end to his political prospects, despite having the judiciary on his side. The first such case is related to contempt of court. On the 23rd of August, the IHC issued a show-cause notice and summoned Khan on the 31st of August for threatening a female additional sessions judge during his Islamabad rally. Khan’s remarks were seen as an attempt to obstruct justice. There is considerable evidence against him, and the courts may be forced to convict him, especially since they’ve convicted other politicians with minimal evidence and despite the fact that they offered unconditional apologies. If he is convicted, he may be disqualified from holding any public office for five years under Article 63 (1)(g) of the Constitution. Other cases that threaten Khan’s political career include the Toshakhana case in which he has been accused of failing to disclose his assets in his tax returns. There is also a prohibited funding case which could possibly result in Khan’s lifetime disqualification under Article 62(1)(f) for his failure to declare multiple bank accounts to the Election Commission of Pakistan.
As the cases against Khan mount and the threat of disqualification looms over him, his options are limited. Considering recent events, it seems that his relationship with the military shall remain severed, unless there is a change within its higher ranks.With his popularity at an all-time high, Khan will likely continue to fight for early elections while his cases are pending in the courts. It seems that, as of now, Imran Khan’s political fate lies in the hands of the judiciary.