ISLAMABAD (AFP) – With military courts, intimidation of the press and mass arrests, Pakistan’s rulers are seeking to destroy former prime minister Imran Khan’s support ahead of elections, analysts said.
Khan’s brief arrest earlier this month sparked days of street protests freighted with anger at the powerful army perceived to have orchestrated his downfall.
Islamabad has labelled the violence “anti-state”, justifying huge roundups and the revival of army courts to try civilians who targetted government and military buildings.
Journalists, lawyers and activists in Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party report campaigns of intimidation and influence which they blame on the “establishment”, a euphemism for the military backing the civilian government.
“They want to make it clear to Imran Khan that he can’t fight with the establishment,” said analyst Hasan Askari.
“People are being broken,” he told AFP. “By exerting pressure in different ways, they are trying to put the politicians in their place.”
The military’s media wing did not respond to repeated requests for comment by AFP.
Since Khan was ousted last year in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, he has levelled unprecedented critique at the military – long-regarded as Pakistan’s powerbrokers who analysts said backed his rise to power in 2018.
Pakistan’s most popular politician has been tangled in dozens of legal cases he claims are fabricated to quash the PTI and bar him from contesting elections due this autumn.
In the days following the protests, more than a dozen of his senior leadership were repeatedly arrested and released on allegations of instigating the violence.
In press conferences after being freed, some of his closest aides condemned the violence and announced they were parting ways with Khan.
“They have put everyone in jail,” Khan complained in an address. “If you said the magic words, ‘We are no longer in PTI’, then you will be released.” Thousands of rank-and-file supporters have also been rounded up under the anti-terrorism act.
In Khan’s power base in the eastern city of Lahore, a grassroots PTI supporter said her son was arrested after protesting peacefully.
“It was clear that he had been beaten and was visibly scared,” the housewife told AFP on condition of anonymity. “He hasn’t set foot outside the house since then. He’s received calls from unknown numbers warning him that he’s being watched.”
Amnesty International said “overly broad and vague anti-terrorism provisions” are being used and “a pall of fear hangs over Khan’s supporters following the arbitrary arrests of many opposition leaders”.
“It is a familiar story. A political party, thinking it can take on the country’s all-powerful establishment, crosses a red line and quickly finds itself losing a ruthless, one-sided war of attrition,” said an editorial in the Dawn newspaper.
“The only way out is to do exactly what you are told.”