Shah Meer Baloch in Islamabad and Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi
Fri, 19 May 2023 at 4:54 pm BST
Imran Khan has alleged his party and followers are facing an unprecedented crackdown, as thousands have been swept up in arrests and hundreds face trial in military courts.
When violence erupted in Pakistan last week, after the arrest of the former prime minister on corruption charges, the government and the military vowed stringent action against all those who took part in the attacks on dozens of government buildings and military leaders’ homes and headquarters. At least nine people were killed in the violence and hundreds injured.
The prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, described those who carried out the violence as “terrorists” and the powerful military establishment said that those responsible for the “heinous crimes” would be tried under military laws. On Friday, Sharif said he had directed law enforcement to leave no stone unturned in finding those responsible.
But Khan alleged that it was a thinly veiled excuse to launch a “reign of terror” upon members of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) who were being rounded up across the country. “Under the garb of identifying arsonists, fascist tactics have been employed by these criminals in power to silence and oppress PTI workers and supporters,” he said.
The government has accused Khan of sheltering “30 to 40 terrorists” involved in the violence in his Lahore home. On Friday evening, a four-member delegation of the Punjab police arrived at Khan’s home with a warrant, and began carrying out a search in front of the media. PTI said police were given “full cooperation” and that the officers had left empty-handed.
Khan has alleged that the violence of 9 May was carried out by those working for the state and military agencies as a means of tarnishing PTI. Speaking briefly to reporters during a court appearance on Friday, he said: “It seems as if all civil liberties and all fundamental rights are finished. Only the courts are protecting human rights now.”
On Friday, Khan was granted bail in several more of the cases filed against him – totalling more than 100 – but alleged the state intended on re-arresting him as soon as it legally could.
Amir Mir, the information minister, said Khan was the “prime accused” in the violence. He refuted Khan’s account that 7,000 people had been arrested in the operation and confirmed that 3,428 had been arrested so far.
Mir said: “No one innocent has been arrested.” Using video and CCTV footage, as well as information gathered from WhatsApp groups, police had compiled a list of 25,000 people responsible and intended to arrest about 5,000 who were directly involved in attacks on government and military property, he said.
“There are 800 people we have arrested who will be tried in military courts and anti-terrorism courts,” said Mir. “Those who broke into buildings and attacked or set sensitive places on fire will be tried in the military courts.”
Senior PTI leaders also continued to be detained en masse, accused of being involved in orchestrating the violence. Among them was PTI’s former human rights minister Shireen Mazari, who was re-arrested this week even though the Islamabad court had given her protection from arrest.
Haider Ali Butt, a political activist and lawyer in Lahore, said across the city there was a police crackdown on anyone associated with Khan’s party.
“State machinery is doing nothing else except raiding PTI workers and their supporters’ homes,” said Butt. “They are even arresting workers who were not involved in the protests. Those accused of being involved in arson or vandalism or attacks on government building are being handed over to anti-terrorism police.”
Among those picked up in Lahore was Ayaan Ali, 22, a Khan supporter accused of taking part in an arson attack on the house of a senior military leader. “My father in law is still in a state of shock that his son was arrested and taken away. He can’t believe it,” said Babar Awan, his brother-in-law. “He was in the police station the entire day yesterday, he could not meet him. We are really concerned about him.”
Several lawyers and politicians raised concerns over the plans to try the arrested civilians in military courts, which Amnesty condemned as a “violation of international law”. Though a law was passed in 2015 allowing terrorists to be tried under army law, such action against civilian protesters on a large scale would be unprecedented in Pakistan.
“This has social, political and legal problems and consequences,” said Asad Jamal, a lawyer opposing the edict, stating that it risked violating the constitution.
Raza Rabbani, a senator with the Pakistan People’s party, a coalition partner in the ruling government, also spoke out against the plans.
“If civilians are tried in military courts, it would be the violation of civil liberties and a grave violation of the fundamental right to a fair and transparent trial,” he said. “The attackers should be tried under the criminal justice system.”