On May 9, as former prime minister Imran Khan was undergoing the biometric registration process at the Islamabad high court, a contingent of Pakistan Rangers in riot control gear swooped down on him. The paramilitary commandos took him away, manhandling those around him. They were acting on the directions of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in the Al-Qadir Trust corruption case, one of the several cases Imran is facing. A day later, an Islamabad court remanded him to NAB custody for eight days.
Imran, his wife Bushra Bibi, and other PTI leaders are facing an NAB inquiry related to a settlement between the ousted PTI government and property tycoon Malik Riaz, allegedly causing a loss of ￡190 million to the national exchequer. According to the NAB, Imran’s government adjusted the amount that was returned by Britain’s National Crime Agency to the Pakistan government as part of a settlement with Riaz. As prime minister, Imran got cabinet approval for the settlement, but kept it confidential. The money was submitted to the supreme court on behalf of Riaz. The Al-Qadir Trust was subsequently given land worth billions to establish a university.
With Imran behind bars, it is a battle for survival for him and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Following the former prime minister’s arrest, his party’s top brass, too, was rounded up, turning it into the biggest challenge the PTI has faced since inception. As news about Imran’s arrest spread, PTI activists were out on the streets in several cities, and the protests turned violent quickly. Army establishments were specifically targeted. The corps commander house in Lahore was torched by protesters, who also vandalised the GHQ (General Headquarters) in Rawalpindi. Public property ranging from government schools and offices to Radio Pakistan, too, came under attack. The PTI leadership distanced itself from the violent protests. “Political parties try to keep protests and political movements peaceful. Unfortunately, once violence starts in a political movement, there is no way to stop it or contain it,” said senior leader Fawad Chaudhry. “We tried to control violent protests as much as we could.”
Yet, some audio leaks suggest that the top leadership of the PTI may have been complicit. The crackdown on the party is expected to be fierce and the next few days will determine whether it will be able to steer itself through the crisis. In an ominous warning to Imran and the PTI, the Pakistan military said that May 9 would go down in history as a dark chapter. “Soon after Imran’s arrest, there were organised attacks on army properties and installations and anti-army slogans were raised. A power-hungry group wrapped in political garb has done to the country what its enemies had failed to do since its inception,” said a statement by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing. It called the PTI leaders ‘hypocrites’ for inciting their workers against the armed forces on the one hand, and praising the military on the other.
Senior journalist Asma Shirazi said that despite the violence, there was no massive support for Imran, which has bust the myth of his “unprecedented popularity”. She said most people who came out were miscreants who tried to spread terror. “The PTI’s status as a political party is now under question and its popularity has taken a hit. What happened on May 9―the attack on GHQ and the corps commander house in Lahore―will stick to it just like the attack on the supreme court by the PML(N) back in 1997. It will haunt the PTI forever and define its relationship with security institutions.” She said by unleashing the violence, the PTI provided an excuse for the government to avoid any blame that it would have otherwise faced after the arrest. She also questioned the support Imran continued to receive from outside Pakistan.
But there are several experts who think that the crackdown against Imran and the PTI went against existing laws. Senior lawyer Faisal Chaudhry told THE WEEK that Imran’s arrest was illegal because under NAB’s amended laws, a call-up notice had to be issued while converting an inquiry into an investigation. It was not followed in Imran’s case. “May 1 is Labour Day. How can the NAB issue a warrant on a holiday? Moreover, Imran was arrested from the premises of the Islamabad high court, violating its sanctity.” Chaudhry said if the NAB wanted to arrest Imran, it should have coordinated with his legal team.
Senior journalist Gharidah Farooqi said the arrest was not completely unexpected. There were a few things that led to the present impasse, especially Imran’s criticism of a very senior military officer for almost a year―he often referred to him as “Dirty Harry”. On the political front, the federal government did not want to hold elections in Punjab on May 14, a date stipulated by the supreme court after Imran challenged the delay in announcing the polls. The Shehbaz Sharif government seems to be sending a message through Imran’s arrest: Punjab elections will be held with the general elections, which are likely in October after the existing national assembly completes its tenure.
Fawad Chaudhry tried to shift the blame towards the Sharif government for the ongoing crisis. He said the PTI’s bond with the army was quite strong as their voter base included Pakistan’s elite classes. “Army families come to our rallies. It is very unfortunate that despite such historic ties, there are differences between the PTI and the army high command. This is not a good thing and it only benefits the government.”
Chaudhry also expressed concern about Imran’s safety. “We have not been given access to him till now. We don’t know how he is, whether he got medical aid or not. The judge was told that he should come and see him, and that he could not be brought to the court.”
The incarceration could define Imran’s political future as it is not easy to fight a political battle from inside a jail cell. “Imran has not been to jail like this before. This will be a make-or-break moment for him,” said Farooqi. “When he gets bail, we will see how he reacts and what he does.”
Former senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar said the ongoing political drama reminded him of the popular quote, “there’s never a dull moment in Pakistan”. But as the crisis continues to aggravate, he appears worried about the country’s future. “It has crossed the threshold of cheap thrills that we are used to, even by our own standards. It is only a matter of time before the old structures crumble,” said Khokhar. “Will the resulting chaos give birth to a new star or hurl us into the abyss, only time will tell.”