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What does Imran Khan’s Arrest, Protests Mean for Pakistan?

Protestors in Peshawar gather to voice their objection to former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Protestors in Peshawar gather to voice their objection to former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

PESHAWAR, May 15 2023 (IPS) - The arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on alleged corruption charges has led to the deterioration of law and order with attacks on army offices for the first time since the country came into being in 1947.

The 70-year-old former cricket star was taken into custody by paramilitary Rangers while appearing in Islamabad High Court for bail in multiple cases on May 9, 2023. His arrest triggered a spontaneous response from the activists of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, who took to the streets in protest, during which buildings were burnt, vandalized and ransacked.

Imran Khan was released two days later by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on May 12, but only after the deaths of 40 PTI activists and several government and army offices were reduced to ashes. Not only were protests held across Pakistan, but PTI’s supporters also marched in New York, Washington DC, France, the UK, Germany, Australia and other European countries to show their anger over his arrest.

“The protesters set on fire a radio station in Peshawar and ransacked army installations in Lahore, Mianwali District and other districts of the country, which is unprecedented in Pakistan’s 75-year history,” political analyst Abdul Jabbar Shah told IPS.

Abdul Jabbar Shah, a political science professor at a private university, said that violent protests by PTI activists were unprecedented because no one had ever dared to touch the army’s offices or the replicas of former soldiers on display in garrison cities.

Writing in The Conversation, Ayesha Jalal, Professor of History at Tufts University, says Khan has a strong support base, “but the country is very fragmented politically. So it is a dangerous situation.

“My fear is that the arrest will only pour more fuel on a combustible situation. Pakistan has been simmering since Khan’s ouster in 2022, with the very real threat of political tensions giving way to widespread violence.

“What was needed was for all involved to try to lower the temperature, but the circumstances of Khan’s arrest have only served to heighten tensions.”

Imran Khan took to social media because the TV channels didn’t air his speech after his release demanding an independent probe into vandalism and violence during protests.

“I want an independent and complete investigation on the burning of state buildings and firing at unarmed youth protesters,” he said. “But I want the chief justice of Pakistan to make a panel under him for this probe.”

More than 1,400 PTI supporters, including male and female leaders, have been arrested.

Khan has alleged that the army chief was behind the end of his government, and his supporters targeted the military’s offices after his arrest.

Muhammad Suhail, an International Relations lecturer at an Islamabad-based university, told IPS that the storming of the General Headquarters and other sensitive installations was regarded as unimaginable before this.

“PTI seemed to be the first political party in the country to have directly challenged the powerful army,” he said. Suhail added that there could be political repercussions for the party in future, too.

For the time being, the PTI has emerged victorious, he said.

Jalal says this “may be a precursor for an attempt to disqualify Khan from public office – which I believe would be a very dangerous move in an election year.

“And this all comes while the incumbent government is facing severe challenges, having been unable to control soaring inflation or make progress on a crucial International Monetary Fund loan to dig the country out of its economic woes.”

Pakistan’s Army on May 13 warned that the armed forces “will not tolerate any further attempt of violating the sanctity and security of its installations or vandalism” as it resolved to bring to justice all the “planners, abettors, instigators and executors of vandalism on the Black Day of the 9th of May”.

The media reported that Chief of Army Staff Gen Asim Munir visited the Corps Headquarters in Peshawar and emphasized the evolving threats to national security. He condemned the PTI leaders for inciting its supporters against the armed forces.

Though Khan’s supporters consider this a victory, for many, taking the law into their hands had set a bad precedent in the country.

Analyst Muhammad Javid says that targeting government and army offices is undemocratic, and the PTI should have adopted a peaceful path to release their leader.

“It has sent out a message that PTI believes in violence, which isn’t a good omen for its political future. Opponents will exploit this against the PTI in the election, which is around the corner,” Javid says. Setting ablaze the army’s offices also suggests people were sick of their army, which isn’t correct as most people regard the army as the defender of the country’s frontiers against the enemy, especially neighbouring India.

PTI activists say that Imran Khan is their “red line”, and those crossing that line will result in protests.

“Because of our aggressive protests, the government released Imran Khan; otherwise, he could have been killed in custody,” said Naveed Shah, 31, in Peshawar. “Imran Khan is an honest leader, and his arrest on corruption charges isn’t acceptable.”

He claimed that PTI’s government was dismissed due to a no-confidence motion in the National Assembly in April 2022, that they had been asking for an election. “Since then, we have been holding agitations for a general election,” Naveed Shah said.

However, he claimed that PTI supporters aren’t involved in violence because they had been struggling for democracy for the past 27 years to establish the rule of law in the country. “How can a party (which is) demanding an election resort to violence,” he asked.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told the media that those involved in acts of terrorism in the garb of democracy would be tried as per the law of the land.

Sanaullah said that Imran Khan had been holding protests to placate enemies of Pakistan.

“If PTI does not change its attitude, the government will be forced to ban it,” he told a press conference on May 13 in Islamabad.

Pakistan suspended internet services to disrupt PTI’s communication network for at least 72 hours. PTI has the largest social media network in the country.

Imran Khan has the largest Twitter following in Pakistan. When the internet resumed operations, PTI activists posted hundreds of videos and pictures to substantiate their claims of non-involvement in acts of burning the national installations.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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