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Following failed kidnapping of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s regime desperately cracks down on dissent

Pakistan’s toppled Prime Minister Imran Khan tried to defend himself against bogus corruption charges, but the military kidnapped him. The Supreme Court ruled it was an unlawful arrest and he was freed. So now the unelected regime is cracking down hard, threatening to prosecute protesters in army courts.

By Junaid S. Ahmad

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to build a “Naya Pakistan” – a New Pakistan. He hoped to break with decades of internal misrule and gross corruption and offer a hopeful future for the world’s fifth-most populous country, of nearly 248 million people.

Khan’s vision also meant a New Pakistan that ended its external dependencies and subordinate relationship with Washington, which could only be described as neo-colonial.

Khan’s period in power came at a bad time, especially because of the Covid-19 crisis, and his own rule did at times reflect a lack of political acumen and an inability to implement all of the social welfare policies to which he was genuinely dedicated.

But Khan’s term in power was cut short by a regime change-operation, which entailed the collusion of a 12-party coalition, including the two dominant political family dynasties of the Sharifs (of the party PML-N) and the Bhuttos (of the party PPP), who had played musical chairs in running the country as their personal fiefdoms for more than three decades.

Also involved in the regime-change operation was the Chief of Army Staff (always the most powerful individual in the country), and a few of his followers in the military-intelligence apparatus; along with, of course, the United States, which has despised Khan’s independent thinking on foreign policy since 2001, when he established himself as a harsh critic of Washington’s so-called “War on Terror”.

All of these power centers, especially the US embassy in Islamabad, cajoled members of Khan’s own party into abandoning him, with promises of political power (and personal riches).

The idea was that the job was done, and that Khan and his political party, the PTI – the Movement for Justice – would gradually be eliminated as serious contenders from political life.

But the exact opposite occurred. The color revolution instigated by Washington and these other forces backfired terribly.

Despite the horrible state of the economy and the suffering of the social majorities, even during Khan’s rule, things changed following his ouster in April 2022, and tens of millions of Pakistanis have poured onto the streets.

In these massive, ongoing protests, the Pakistani people have condemned the mafias and crooks (the term often used to describe Pakistan’s civilian politicians), as well as the brutal national-security state that has dragged the country back to the status quo ante of repression, corruption, and massive inequality and impoverishment.

For a whole year now, enormous numbers of Pakistanis have been protesting peacefully and attending rallies held by Imran Khan, whose popularity has continued to soar.

Khan is by far the most popular politician in Pakistan, with at least 61% support – in what was probably a conservative estimate in a survey this March by leading pollster Gallup. (The unelected prime minister who replaced Khan, Shehbaz Sharif, had 65% disapproval.)

The Pakistani government and sections of the top brass of the military did not know what to make of this. Their complete attention for the past year has been dedicated to somehow eliminating Khan.

Ludicrous charges of treason or corruption have constantly been leveled against him.

Most gruesomely, there was an assassination attempt against Khan in November, which almost succeeded.

Military commanders knew that Khan not only had the support of the people, but also of the majority of the military itself, especially among the soldiers, as well as many junior- and mid-rank officers.

These were the same military forces that Khan repeatedly said had sacrificed their lives at the behest of Washington’s so-called “War on Terror.” More than 80,000 Pakistani lives were lost in this war, thousands of whom were military soldiers and officers, who had sometimes been ordered to kill innocent people who had nothing to do with terrorism.

This explained the initial reluctance on the part of the generals to assault Khan and his supporters. But things soon changed.

The “arrest” of Imran Khan
The current, unelected regime cooked up corruption charges against Imran Khan. The former prime minister said he was more than willing to go to court to debunk the accusations and expose the sham. This May, he traveled from Lahore to the Islamabad High Court for the case.

As Khan entered the judicial compound, he was manhandled and abducted by military rangers, who were doing the job jointly at the behest of the intelligence services and Interior Ministry.

Khan was kidnapped, with his whereabouts unknown for three days.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court asserted that this was not a lawful arrest but rather an illegal kidnapping, and that Khan should be set free on bail.

The Chief Justice and the Supreme Court hence also became a target for those who have been trying to eliminate Khan by all means. For them, there is no rule of law; they believe their word is law.

When Khan was abducted and detained, huge numbers of demonstrators spent two full days flooding the major and minor cities and towns of the country in protest.

The Pakistani national-security state primarily relied on the most gruesome and thuggish forces in its intelligence agencies to crack down on these protesters.

In these constant demonstrations, thousands of PTI workers have been jailed, tortured, and imprisoned. Some have even been dragged out of their houses, and their family members have been harassed and detained.

For a year, the protests were peaceful. But this May, there was looting, fires, and some violence. There is video footage demonstrating that hundreds of men in civilian clothing were jumping out of army vehicles, posing as protesters, engaging in this violent behavior.

There is evidence suggesting that agents provocateurs at the service of the state were seeking to discredit Khan, depicting him and his followers as supporters of terrorism, demonizing the PTI as a supposed “terrorist” political party.

The military top brass and the ruthlessly corrupt clowns running the government are so desperate they are now equating Khan’s political party with the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban.

Their objective is obvious: to permanently disqualify the country’s most popular party from participating in elections and the political system itself.

In the brutal crackdown this may, the regime has gone one step forward. The military establishment has said that all protesters involved in violence – basically anyone they want to accuse without any evidence – will not be tried in civil courts, but rather in army courts, where traditional due process rules will not be adhered to.

They are using a law known as the Army Act.

Mainstream Western organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have harshly condemned these Pakistani trials in army courts.

The former wrote:

Amnesty International has documented a catalogue of human right violations stemming from trying civilians in military courts in Pakistan, including flagrant disregard for due process, lack of transparency, coerced confessions, and executions after grossly unfair trials. Therefore, any indication that the trial of civilians could be held in military courts is incompatible with Pakistan’s obligations under international human rights law.

This is purely an intimidation tactic, designed to crack down on dissent by exercising fear of an institution that has never been held to account for its overreach. There are several provisions under ordinary criminal laws that can be used to prosecute vandalism and destruction of public property. The right to a fair trial, guaranteed by Pakistan’s constitution, is severely undermined by this move and cannot be justified. It must be struck down immediately.

Though late in their response, some on Pakistan’s professional left – despite their contempt and envy of Khan and his popularity – have also criticized the Army Act.

The top brass of the military high command and the most venal elements of their intelligence services, along with their partners-in-crime in the current regime, believe this will finally solve the problem of Imran Khan’s threat to the status quo.

But it is important to note that a major chunk of military officers and even corps commanders were not on board with this draconian move.

The extremist elements implementing this “final solution” to the Khan problem feel that Washington and London’s support is sufficient for them to get away with whatever brutality they wish to inflict on his movement and the PTI at this point.

Washington’s response
When the military briefly kidnapped Khan in May, the US government refused to comment on the act, which amounted to a de facto endorsement.

Since then, the State Department has only issued vague declarations on the need to respect the “rule of law” and “democratic principles” (despite the fact that the regime it is currently backing was not elected).

However, there may be some divisions emerging in the Washington establishment over this whole gruesome affair in Pakistan.

Even notorious neoconservative US diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who helped oversee the war on Afghanistan, has conceded that Pakistan is now a “military dictatorship”.

The US desperately wants a stable Pakistan, from which it could project its power, in a region where Washington has largely been forced to retreat, especially after its humiliating defeat in Afghanistan.

The rapprochement arranged by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the normalization of ties between Syria and Saudi Arabia, were another major blow to US hegemony.

Washington’s quislings in Pakistan’s military high command and the political class were principally tasked with providing the US with a blank check: air space for any operation to be conducted in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the restoration of a military base closed by the Pakistanis in 2011, and general obedience to US strategy to undermine and subvert any and all things related to Chinese and Russian prosperity, even if they also mean prosperity for Pakistan.

This US strategy included sabotaging the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of Beijing’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Washington apparently now believes that Islamabad could be coerced into becoming a sort of “major non-Quad ally,” causing the historic Sino-Pakistan relationship to crumble.

However, the political consciousness of Pakistanis has been completely transformed over the past year, and Washington is starting to have doubts whether its planned agenda can be implemented by a government and national-security state so despised by so many Pakistanis.

A rare chance for the US to regain a foothold in the region
Despite having lost nearly all of its prestige and moral authority in the region, the US government could have the chance to earn the goodwill the Pakistani people, if it actually supported democracy and the rule of law in the country.

US Congresswoman Maxine Water reportedly spoke with Imran Khan about the current regime’s human rights violations, and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed Khan, providing the people of the US a rare opportunity to know the facts, to separate the truth from the propaganda, and to urge their Congressional leaders to persuade the government to align itself with actual justice and the actual rule of law.

They should feel the pulse of the masses of Pakistan and not opt for the short-lived gain from propping up dictators who will pliantly obey the US, against the interests of the common people. Such unwise foreign policy actions always result in blowback, and would only hurt US interests in the long run.

The entire world knows which political party and political leader stands for democracy and fair elections in Pakistan. The world also knows which group does not want elections.

The coalition that ironically calls itself the “Pakistan Democratic Movement” is in reality aimed at preventing democracy from emerging by refusing to hold elections.

They are obsessed with banning, imprisoning, or even assassinating Imran Khan, the most popular and most honest political leader in Pakistan’s history.

Why do they want to remove him? Because they know that Khan and his party will sweep the elections.

This ramshackle group should more accurately be called the Pakistan Anti-Democratic Movement.

Restoration or revolution
Because of the horrendous levels of state repression taking place against his party members and leadership, Imran Khan asked supporters to stand strong during this dark period in Pakistan’s history.

For the moment, he has cautioned the people to avoid confronting a ruthless state that is prepared to try thousands in military courts, while still holding thousands under arrest, subjecting many to the worst forms of torture.

With a population eager for a revolution that would topple all the crooks and mafias in government – and in the Washington-backed military-intelligence senior personnel – it is difficult to see how such festering rage can be permanently subdued.

The regime believes it has succeeded in being restored. But tens of millions of Pakistanis and intelligent observers can see that this is delusional thinking.

The regime has crossed the Rubicon, a “red line” that protesters had drawn to warn the criminals against this ongoing savage assault on Imran Khan and his peaceful supporters.

It is hard to imagine that there will not be a cost to pay for that in a country of 248 million, where the bulk of the population is restive and impatient with what they have witnessed happening both to themselves and to the most popular leader in the nation’s history.

Even more crucially, millions of Pakistanis are now empowered in a way they haven’t been for decades. They know change is possible – and it’s in sight. It’s only a matter of time.

Junaid S. Ahmad teaches law, religion, and world politics and is the director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Decoloniality in Islamabad, Pakistan.

22 May 2023


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