The dignity and sanctity of every institution in Pakistan has been eroded in the aftermath of the unseemly arrest of Imran Khan
The massive protests and chaos that erupted in cities across Pakistan over the past few days following the dramatic arrest of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was taken into custody by the Rangers paramilitary force from the premises of the Islamabad High Court on the direction of Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), are not new for the country. Such large and violent protests, whether by political parties or by religious extremist organizations, have over the past decade occurred in the country with an unhealthy regularity. Imran Khan, the man at the centre of the present violence, has been described as the “most divisive man in Pakistan”, and he faces over 100 court cases across the country on charges such as inciting violence and attacking the country’s institutions. Ever since he had to demit office rather unceremoniously in April 2022, Khan has been treading the risky path of taking on the all-powerful military establishment – his erstwhile benefactors turned foes. What was new in this week’s chaos was the direct physical attack that symbols of the Pakistan Army came under from enraged PTI workers, who ransacked army buildings and torched police vehicles.
Dramatic footage showed dozens of officers arriving at the court on 9 May, breaking down glass windows and detaining Imran Khan, who was bundled into a vehicle and driven away. He was appearing in court on charges of corruption, which he says were politically motivated. Khan, who was aware of his impending arrest, had in a video statement issued hours before his apprehension claimed that the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition and its alleged “handlers” were trying to arrest him to prevent him from campaigning for elections and from mobilizing the masses if the government “refused to obey the Supreme Court and violated the Constitution” on holding elections. Pakistan remains deeply mired in an economic and political crisis, and Khan is pressuring the reluctant PDM coalition government for early elections. He had added, “I am ready to die than live under these duffers, the question is are you ready? There is no case on me. They want to put me in jail; I am ready for it”.
Khan had also accused a senior officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of plotting to kill him, a charge that prompted the military to warn him against making “irresponsible and baseless allegations”. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif too weighed in, saying that he had “no doubt” that Imran’s politics were defined by “blatant lies, untruths, U-turns, and vicious attacks on institutions”. Sharif termed Imran’s “routinely maligning and threatening the Pakistan Army and the intelligence agency for the sake of petty political gains” as “highly condemnable”.
Imran Khan’s arrest caused him and the PTI to urge their supporters to protest strongly. Khan’s call to his supporters was direct – “Pakistan's brave people must come out and defend their country”. he said. Within minutes of his arrest, the PTI issued a call to “shut down Pakistan”. In the hours after he was detained, violence erupted across the country, including in cities such as Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar. On the streets of the capital Islamabad, hundreds of protesters blocked one of the main highways in and out of the capital. The protests intensified in the coming days, and by 11 May at least eight people had died in the ensuing violence and over 290 had been injured. More than 1,900 protesters were rounded up by security forces in running battles with law enforcers across the country. The Army was deployed in Islamabad, as well as across the Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces on 10 May, to maintain law and order amid the violent protests. At least 14 government buildings were set on fire by PTI supporters in the Punjab province alone. Police said Khan’s supporters had even gone to the extent of attacking the Model Town, Lahore residence of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in the early hours of Wednesday. BBC reported that as the protests grew, with several violent actions taking place in front of Army compounds, mobile data services in the country were suspended on the instructions of the interior ministry.
On 10 May, Imran Khan was produced in an Anti-Accountability Court, which handed his custody to the NAB for an eight-day remand. Meanwhile, in a growing crackdown on the party, several other senior PTI leaders, including Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi, were arrested.
The Pakistani daily Dawn in a 9 May article titled ‘Pygmy State: Political pundits, lawyers weigh in on Imran Khan’s arrest’ conveyed the frustration and exasperation that people in Pakistan experienced with the recent developments. Lawyer Rida Hosain felt that “The manner in which Imran Khan has been arrested is distressing for every believer in the rule of law. Nothing justifies the disproportionate manner in which the arrest was carried out. Hundreds of Rangers (personnel) assembled, windows were broken, and a former Prime Minister was dragged out of court premises to secure an arrest”. Questioning the legality of the arrest and the role of the Rangers, she added, “The government must clarify whether it called the Rangers in aid of civil power. Even so, there is no justification for scores of Rangers (personnel) in uniform to be sent to carry out the arrest”.
Terming the arrest “pure blind rage and vengeance”, Journalist Zarrar Khuhro alluded to the military when he tweeted a stark warning for those who were in favour of such an arrest – “Politicians or any civilians who stand for this should know that, as is always the case, those actually in power can and will turn on you too. Always have, always will. Ultimately all civilian powers must unite on basic principles, as impossible as that seems. If not, be assured you will all sink sooner or later”. Lawyer Mirza Moiz Baig termed Pakistan an “authoritarian State” and pointed out that Imran’s arrest could “hardly be viewed with a legal lens alone”. He added, “In a State like ours, the State’s power to use violence and restrict an individual’s freedom is often used to punish politicians and leaders who have lost the establishment’s favour. Without prejudice to the merits of the case against Imran Khan, his recent arrest can hardly be viewed with a legal lens alone”.
Journalist Shahzeb Jillani, meanwhile, said that Imran was getting a “taste of his own medicine”. He said, “It’s a case of ‘what goes around comes around’. As Prime Minister, Imran Khan used State institutions, NAB and FIA to jail and victimise his critics and opponents. Today, he is getting a slight taste of his own medicine. Still, the manner in which he’s been arrested from the premises of the Islamabad High Court is deplorable. If the case against him for abuse of authority and corrupt practices is strong, he must be dealt with fairly and according to the law”. Noting that the arrest came following Imran’s reiteration of allegations against military officials, Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre termed the arrest a “huge escalation in a long, ugly crisis”. Columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha warned that “there’s no coming back from this. The ‘red line’ has been crossed”.
Lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii highlighted some important aspects when he said that “the biggest problem with today’s arrest is the optics. In response to Imran Khan naming an army officer as part of a conspiracy to harm him, we see a coordinated parroting of vilification from the government. The next day, we see a paramilitary force which does not legally have any power to arrest, lay siege to the filing section of the high court and ham-fistedly taking Imran Khan into custody. We see a handpicked NAB chairman’s arrest order for a case which has somehow made its way ahead of the dozens of other cases against politicians. All of this makes for miserable optics: if you try to see the forest for the trees, you will clearly see the workings of a Pygmy State; beholden to unelected overlords. This man is a former Prime Minister and is, according to every poll, the most popular politician in the country. The violent and alarming images surrounding Imran Khan’s arrest would be more familiar in an occupied territory. But perhaps that’s exactly what we are as a country”.
An editorial in The Nation, another popular Pakistani daily, termed Khan’s arrest “shocking”, adding that “While the arrest can be argued to be legal, the manner in which it was carried out and the resulting unrest throughout the country is extremely concerning”. The editorial made a very pertinent observation when it underlined that no political leader in the country, including those in power and Khan himself, seemed to be focusing on rebuilding the nation and solving the poly-crises. The newspaper said, “Political leaders are prioritising short-term interests over those of the nation, and that is applicable across the board. As far as Mr. Khan is concerned, his routine tirades are only increasing polarisation across the country and are bringing disrepute to the country’s institutions at a time when you need all hands on deck”.
International reactions were also expectedly not very flattering for Pakistan. The United States (US) said it was aware of what unfolded in Islamabad, but it did not have a position on a political candidate or a party. The US State Department spokesperson said, “We are aware of the arrest of former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan. As we have said before, the United States does not have a position on one political candidate or party versus another. We call for the respect of democratic principles and the rule of law around the world”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a press conference in Washington that “We just want to make sure that whatever happens in Pakistan is consistent with the rule of law, with the Constitution”. United Kingdom (UK) Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, meanwhile, stressed that “We want to see peaceful democracy in that country. We want to see the rule of law adhered to”.
The tragedy for Pakistan is that the recent events have forced all major Pakistani State institutions to shed some sheen. Pakistan’s democracy and rule of law have taken a severe beating with Khan’s arrest. The upheaval after the arrest follows months of political crisis. Even prior to the arrest, the situation was so dire and Pakistan’s political class so polarized that it forced friendly China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang, on his first trip to Islamabad for the fourth Pakistan-China Foreign Ministers’ Strategic Dialogue, to say at a press briefing alongside Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari that “We sincerely hope the political forces in Pakistan will build consensus, uphold stability and more effectively address domestic and external challenges so it can focus on growing the economy”. The fact that it was for the first time that any visiting high-level Chinese official had talked openly about political stability in Pakistan demonstrated how acute the problem had become. As PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry pointed out, Imran Khan’s arrest has only caused further political division in the country.
The judiciary, which eventually intervened with the Supreme Court on 11 May terming Khan’s arrest “illegal” and ordering his immediate release, did not escape disrespect either. Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial conveyed his displeasure over the manner in which the arrest had taken place, and expressed incredulity at an individual being arrested from the court premises. He pointed out that appearing in court was a form of surrender, and no one could be arrested from court without the permission of the court’s registrar. He observed that the NAB was, therefore, guilty of “contempt of court”. The Supreme Court also took note that about 90 to 100 Rangers personnel had entered the court to arrest Khan, asking, “What dignity remains of the court if 90 people entered its premises? Court staffers were also subjected to abuse”.
More than any other institution, the Pakistani military is the one that has faced the worst consequences of Imran Khan’s arrest. This was evident when in response to the violence and protests following Khan’s arrest, the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) lamented that “May 9 will be a black day and dark chapter in the country’s history”. These strong words conveyed the affront that the Pakistan Army, an institution that had always been above public reproach, felt at being attacked directly by the public. As protests broke out across Pakistan, multiple reports said that thousands of Khan’s supporters had gathered near Army cantonments and bases. In Rawalpindi, protesters vandalized the gates of the Army Headquarters. In Lahore, Khan’s supporters forcibly entered the residence of the Corps Commander and ransacked the building, later setting it on fire. In Quetta and Faisalabad, hundreds of protesters gathered at checkpoints and chanted slogans against the Army and the establishment. Local media reports claimed that the police had opened fire in these areas, and this resulted in the death of at least 5 protesters. Many policemen were also injured.
The ISPR statement alleged that after Khan’s arrest, organized attacks on Army properties and installations were launched and anti-Army slogans were raised. It added, “These evil elements vigorously stir up public sentiments to fulfill their limited and selfish goals while throwing dust in the eyes of the people”. Alluding to India, the ISPR said, “What the eternal enemy of the country could not do for 75 years, this group, wearing a political cloak, in the lust for power, has done”. It added that the “Army showed extreme patience, tolerance and restraint and without caring about its own reputation worked with extreme patience and tolerance in the wider interest of the country”, and warned that “Facilitators, planners and political activists involved in these operations have been identified and strict action will be taken. No one can be allowed to incite people and take the law into their hands”.
As Imran Khan’s tirade against the Army sharpened over the past year, his popularity also increased manifold and his supporters quickly became comfortable with challenging and speaking out against the military-political complex, which was unprecedented. The situation reached such a pass that for the first time in its history, the ISI and the Army were compelled to hold press conferences to defend themselves from Khan’s accusations. In this backdrop, Dawn believes that Khan’s arrest has exacerbated the problem instead of solving it. It argued that “removing Mr Khan from the picture solves nothing. Instead, as the protests yesterday showed, arresting him may have deeply fractured the historic compact between the people and the country’s armed forces…The provocation of Mr Khan’s arrest has only led the government and establishment deeper into controversy and will engender even greater public distrust in their policies. This is the last thing the country needs, teetering as it is on the verge of an all-out default”.
The military establishment’s pride and dominance have both been challenged, and it is fast losing the halo and the invincibility that had enabled it to rule unquestioned, but now how it chooses to react to the direct assaults upon it will dictate the future course that the deeply distressed Pakistan is heading in.