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Imran Khan arrest: Pakistan in turmoil amid fears of further crackdown

May 10, 2023 11:23 AM IST

The current situation in Pakistan is unprecedented and has the potential for triggering a confrontation between the country’s powerful military and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party

Pakistan was on knife’s edge on Wednesday as protests erupted in several cities following the arrest of former premier Imran Khan on corruption charges, with fears growing of a further crackdown on the cricketer-turned-politician’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Protests erupted in several cities of Pakistan after the arrest of former premier Imran Khan on corruption charges. (AP)
Protests erupted in several cities of Pakistan after the arrest of former premier Imran Khan on corruption charges. (AP)

Soon after Khan, 70, was bundled away from the Islamabad high court complex on Tuesday by dozens of personnel from a paramilitary force controlled by army officers, PTI workers protested in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar.

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In the garrison city of Rawalpindi, protestors entered a compound near the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) where military ceremonies are held after breaching the lightly defended gates. Protestors also entered and vandalised the army corps commander’s residence in Lahore – scenes that have never been witnessed in stormy protests in the past and have the potential for triggering a confrontation between the powerful military and the PTI.

Khan was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s main anti-graft body, with help from the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers on the ground that he had ignored repeated notices to join the investigation into what has come to be known as the Al Qadir Trust case.

NAB has alleged that Khan’s government struck a deal with real estate tycoon Malik Riaz that caused a loss of more than $239 million to the state exchequer. Khan also faces allegations that he and his wife obtained billions of rupees and vast tracts of land from Riaz’s firm, Bahria Town, for legalising 50 billion that was identified and returned to Pakistan by the UK’s National Crime Agency following an investigation against Riaz.

Khan is also facing charges in several other cases brought against him since he was ousted from the post of prime minister in a parliamentary vote of confidence in April 22. These include charges of inciting mutiny and corruption for allegedly retaining or selling gifts given to him by foreign leaders when he was prime minister.

But the manner in which he was arrested by the Pakistan Rangers, which is led by army officers, has led many to conclude that the action was the outcome of the military’s anger against Khan for publicly naming a senior Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer in connection with alleged attempts on his life. While addressing a rally in Lahore on Saturday, Khan accused Maj Gen Faisal Naseer, director general of counter-intelligence in ISI, of trying to kill him twice. Though Khan had referred to the same general obliquely by using the nickname “Dirty Harry” in recent speeches, he had never named Naseer publicly.

More than any other Pakistan leaders in recent decades, Khan has openly challenged the powerful military that has ruled the country for almost half of its history. Some even believe he has been trying to create a split within the army, as he is considered to enjoy the support of some serving and retired generals.

However, Khan’s deractors have pointed out that he came to power in the 2018 election largely because of the support of the army, which was accused of forcing influential politicians from other parties to join the PTI and indirectly influencing the outcome of the election to benefit the former cricketer.

In recent weeks, Khan has also made unsubstantiated allegations that the current ruling coalition government – the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif – has been colluding with the military and the US to keep him out of power.

In an editorial titled “The die is cast”, the influential Dawn newspaper pointed to the low probability of a negotiated way out of the political crisis, which has come at a time when Pakistan is struggling to obtain a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“The breakout of fresh hostilities between the PTI and the state means any hopes of a negotiated breakthrough in the ongoing political stalemate can be put to rest,” the editorial said, adding that the use of the Pakistan Rangers and not the regular police to detain Khan supports the thesis that he was picked up not for the corruption case, but “an entirely different reason”.

The protests that broke out following Khan’s arrest “signal that public anger is also directed at the military” and videos from various protests “suggested that the people were angry enough to cross lines no one dared cross before”, the editorial said.

“The events of the last 13 months have seen the military’s past — especially with respect to its political meddling — rapidly catching up with it amidst Pakistan’s unprecedented polycrisis,” it said.

Removing Khan from the picture solves nothing and his arrest “may have deeply fractured the historic compact between the people and the country’s armed forces”, the editorial cautioned.

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