Terrorism charges against Imran Khan push Pakistan to the edge

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

Barely eight days after Pakistan celebrated its 75th independence day, the country is caught in a sordid if familiar powerplay.

Pakistani police have filed terrorism charges against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was ousted in April after a no-confidence vote. The charges stem from Khan declaring at a public rally his intention to sue police officers and a female judge. Khan has also alleged that a close aide of his had been tortured after his arrest.

The police have filed what is known as a first information report (FIR), a legal practice prevalent in South Asia, including India, which generally leads to an arrest after an accused is presented before a magistrate. However, Khan’s lawyers have managed to secure protective bail, also known anticipatory bail, in order to preempt an immediate arrest. The high court in Islamabad gave him time until Thursday.

At a rally in Islamabad on Saturday, Khan was reported as saying, “Listen Director Inspector General (of police), we’re not going to let you go, we’re going to file a case against you. And madam magistrate you should also get ready, we will take action against you.” The rally was to show solidarity Khan’s former chief of staff Shahbaz Gill, who was arrested earlier this month on sedition charges. The sedition charges were provoked by Gill urging soldiers to disobey orders from the military commanders.

While the Pakistani authorities investigate whether Khan violated anti-terror laws, he has been banned from holding public rallies as well as live television appearance. After his ouster in April, he has stepped up his public engagement and appears to have become politically stronger and more popular. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party has said the investigation is on “frivolous allegations with no legal grounds.”

Irrespective of whether the charges lead to arrest or eventually even conviction and prison time, the fact that they have been made at all is a clear indication of a serious escalation in political tensions by the government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. As an indication of the rising tensions, Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has described Khan’s comments as “hate speech” and instructed television channels not to carry any more speeches by him.

One particular source of worry for the Sharif government is Khan’s repeated assertions that he was dislodged from power as a result of collusion between the Pakistani military and the United States. He has called it an American plot against him because he took independent positions on many issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He has furnished no evidence to make those extraordinary claims. However, his cocktail of anti-America rhetoric and accusations of serious corruption in the government has been lapped up by young Pakistanis.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “64 percent of Pakistan’s population is younger than 30 and 29 percent of Pakistanis are between 15 and 29 (an age group which we define as the youth). Pakistan now has more young people than it has ever had.” A significant part of that youth population appears to have warmed up to Khan’s positions.

With the country’s economy being in a tailspin, the rupee rapidly weakening and rising unemployment the Sharif government cannot afford a challenge from Khan. Ironically, it was after accusing Khan of economic mismanagement that Sharif and his political allies came to power.

The latest drama is a multi-angle fight among the military, government and Khan’s party even as the military has kept a low profile so far.

During a speech last night at a rally in Rawalpindi near Islamabad, known as the country’s military hub, Khan said so-called “neutrals” were behind the recent crackdown against his party. The term “neutrals” is controversial because Khan had earlier used it to refer to the military.

“A plan has been made to place our party against the wall. I assure you, that the Sri Lankan situation is going to happen here,” Khan was quoted as saying.

“Now we are following law and constitution. But when a political party strays from that path, the situation inside Pakistan, who will stop the public? There are 220 million people,” he said.

For the better part of the last 75 years of its existence, Pakistan has witnessed continuous tensions between the political class and the military. After he first came to power in 2018, there were those who insisted that it was under the benign and helpful gaze of the military. That no longer appears to be the case.