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EFSAS Commentary

Imran Khan’s attempted arrest | This is what anarchy is


The two volatile days of 14 & 15 March, during which violent clashes erupted between Pakistani security forces seeking to arrest Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Khan’s charged supporters, who hell-bent on preventing his arrest had turned up in droves and quickly outnumbered the police, will go down as yet another dark day in Pakistan’s troubled history. Not only were scores of people, mainly security officers, injured during the clashes, the law-enforcement personnel also had to bear the humiliation of having to eventually return empty-handed from Zaman Park in Lahore, where Khan’s residence is located. Convinced that his impending arrest in a corruption case was motivated by a sinister conspiracy to assassinate him, Khan told multiple foreign media outlets on the night of 14 March that he was mentally prepared to spend the night behind bars, but was determined not to surrender. Khan’s deliberate escalation to avoid arrest has been viewed as a mockery of Pakistan’s judicial system as well as the rule of law by many, but others believe that the move to arrest Khan was an attempt by his political opponents, especially the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), to eliminate the competition ahead of elections scheduled in the important Punjab province, a contest the PML-N will find very difficult to win.

At a time when Pakistan is struggling on virtually all fronts and a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout is at an advanced stage of negotiations, Pakistan’s volatile politics is likely to make the IMF even more nervous than it was to begin with. The disregard of the welfare of the people who elected them to office, as evidenced in the incessant squabbling among political parties over issues of power and personal gain, has become the defining feature of Pakistan’s politics today. It has led seasoned commentators to wonder whether anarchy was what lay ahead.

An Islamabad district and sessions court on 13 March issued an arrest warrant for Imran Khan after he persistently skipped earlier hearings in the Toshakhana case, in which Khan is accused of buying expensive gifts that he had received officially as the premier at a heavily discounted price from the State depository called Toshakhana, and selling them for profit. He was disqualified by the Election Commission of Pakistan in October last year for not sharing details of these sales, and a criminal complaint had also been filed with the Islamabad district court. The court had directed the police to present Khan by 18 March.

In pursuance of the court’s directive, armoured police vehicles had arrived outside Zaman Park on the afternoon of 14 March with the intention of arresting Imran Khan. The Inspector General of Police, Punjab, Usman Anwar later recounted that a Punjab police force of 300 personnel, along with Islamabad police officials, had gone to Zaman Park for implementing the court order. A heavy contingent of the Punjab Rangers force had also arrived later. Anwar told Geo News that the police contingent tried to negotiate with the PTI, but were instead pelted with stones and petrol bombs. He added, “As a result of intense pelting, the DIG was injured … and till now 27 of our officers have been injured”. Imran Khan, on the other hand, said with reference to his supporters, “The boys outside are not listening to me. When this anarchy and shelling is taking place against them, they won’t listen to me anymore. I have no control over them now”. Footage of the clashes showed the police using water cannons and tear gas against the thousands of PTI supporters that had gathered outside Zaman Park. The police later also cut the electricity supply to Khan’s home and turned street lights off in the neighborhood.

A Pakistani police official was quoted by CNN as saying the following day that a total of 69 people had been injured in the violence in Lahore, including 34 police officers. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had added that people inside Khan’s residence were armed with guns. Protests in support of Khan had also broken out in other major cities across Pakistan, including Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi and Rawalpindi, on 14 March, after Imran released a video on social media asking his followers to “come out” in support of his movement if he was detained. Violent clashes continued until 15 March, when an order to the police by the Lahore High Court to suspend operations to arrest Khan until 16 March defused the situation. Amid the standoff, Khan signed a surety bond pledging to appear at the Islamabad High Court on 18 March.

In the several interviews that he gave to the international media, Khan described the charges against him as being politically motivated, and warned that attempts to arrest him could lead to a dangerous escalation in political violence in the country. He alleged that Pakistani authorities were attempting to arrest him in order to remove him from the upcoming by-elections in April and the General Election scheduled for October. He said, “I know what the intention is. They want to get me out of the race. They want to get me out of the match so that they can win the elections”. Khan claimed to CNN that the government was “petrified that if I come into power, I will hold them accountable. They also know that even if I go to jail, we will swing the elections no matter what they do”. He also expressed the fear that Pakistan’s unpopular ruling coalition could eventually use a “pretext of violence” to delay the elections. Khan told the media that “According to all opinion polls, we will sweep the upcoming polls and that is why they want me removed from the scene”. Khan also separately alleged that “This is part of the London plan and an agreement has been signed there to put Imran in jail, make the PTI fall, and finish all cases against Nawaz Sharif”.

The Pakistan government strongly refuted Khan’s allegations and denied any political involvement in the case. Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb told CNN that “The government has nothing to do with the arrest (of Khan), and the arrest has nothing to do with elections. The police is only complying with the orders of the court. Instead of cooperating with law enforcement officials, Imran Khan is breaking the law, defying court orders and using his party workers as human shields to evade arrest and stoke unrest”.

Referring to the PTI, PML-N chief organizer and Senior Vice President Maryam Nawaz alleged that her party was facing a “terrorist outfit” rather than a political party, and that Imran Khan was using his party workers to avert his arrest “like a coward”. She asserted that the followers of Imran Khan were not just injuring police personnel, but also insulting the courts of law and the country’s judicial system. Maryam Nawaz concluded, “The man prophesying disintegration of the country is now tearing court orders apart and injuring those who carried those orders to Zaman Park”.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari saw the attempted arrest through the prism of the multiple problems that his country is currently faced with. He stressed that “Unfortunately, Pakistan is facing a perfect storm. Not only do we have heightened partisanship and political polarization, to the extent that political parties or political stakeholders aren’t even in a position to sit in a room and discuss issues amongst themselves, we’re also facing an economic crisis”. He added that the country faced a security threat following the fall of the Ashraf Ghani government in Afghanistan, and the increasing frequency of terrorist attacks was a clear manifestation of that. Saying that Imran Khan believes that the country’s law does not apply to him, Bhutto-Zardari concluded that “We are caught in a situation where there is this political chaos playing out on the streets, which is distracting from the real issues that are affecting everyday Pakistanis”.

Opinion within Pakistan’s civil society on the attempted arrest of Imran Khan has been divided. Those such as lawyer Reema Omer believe that there was no moral or legal justification for “Imran Khan not appearing in court and repeatedly evading arrest”. She added that the PTI leader’s actions were yet another attempt at creating a “State within a State” that could lead the country into civil war. Journalist Mubashir Zaidi tweeted that the PTI chief had lost the opportunity to stand tall as a politician by not coming out of his residence and presenting himself for arrest. He wrote, “Political leaders lead from the front, not take human shields like cult leaders”. Others, such as journalist Zarrar Khuhro, believe that the police action proved that “clear grounds were being manufactured for delaying elections”. He opined that “If elections are delayed beyond constitutionally decreed limits, as decided in SC (Supreme Court) judgments, then you have no right to talk of parliament, process or to condemn violations of that process in the future”. Anchorperson Kamran Khan, on the other hand, was of the opinion that the government’s strategy to arrest Imran was “utterly stupid” as it provided him “non-stop coverage from Lahore to Los Angeles”.

Perhaps the most pertinent and sensitive comments on the attempted arrest came from a legal luminary. Judge Iqbal of the Lahore High Court observed that there would be no need for the police to camp outside Khan’s residence if he had appeared before the court. At a juncture when most Pakistanis are having to endure a harsh and relentless cost of living crisis, the judge underlined that being a poor country Pakistan can ill-afford to squander its limited resources in such a wasteful and destructive manner. He remarked that the arrest warrant had become the most expensive warrant in the world, and millions of rupees have been spent to execute it. “What happened shouldn’t have taken place”, the judge concluded.

Even before the attempted arrest, discerning analysts had been seeing the writing large and clear on the wall. Dawn columnist and author Zahid Hussain, in a 22 February article titled ‘Drift towards anarchy’, had assessed that “The unfolding political power game has sharpened the clash of institutions, resulting in a systemic collapse. There seems to be a complete breakdown of the state, with no sign of the political stand-off ending. The fear of civil strife looms large as tension mounts in the country’s largest and most powerful province Punjab. The recent crises have shaken the entire edifice. The political stand-off has brought the country closer to anarchy. Political confrontation and polarisation have weakened the state institutions and created more space for extra-constitutional powers to act. It is one of the most serious crises that the country has encountered in its turbulent political history. There is need for political reconciliation”.

After the violence of this week, Hussain seems convinced that anarchy has already descended upon Pakistan, as he had this to say in his comments on the attempted arrest: “Khan has a huge role in this anarchy and he has pushed the country into it. The current government has a role as well. Khan is responsible for what is happening in Pakistan. It is a State’s crisis and multiple crises. Every State institution including the powerful Army has become controversial. This is what anarchy is”.