Pakistan in Troubled Waters

Ruchi Ghanashyam Wednesday 17th May 2023 09:29 EDT

As Pakistan’s economy trundles precariously towards a dark abyss, devastated by severe floods last year, soaring inflation, an uncertain IMF bailout package; as people struggle to feed themselves and their children; and as terror attacks continue unabated; Pakistan was wracked by yet another crisis last week. On 9th May 2023, Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, was arrested on corruption charges.

Founder and chairman of the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Imran Khan became Pakistan’s 22nd Prime Minister from August 2018 - April 2022. 

He was arrested from inside the High Court in Islamabad by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in connection with the Al-Qadir Trust, which he owns alongside his wife, Bushra Bibi. Following his arrest, his party called for demonstrations. Responding to these calls, Imran Khan’s followers took over the streets in several cities of Pakistan. The Army establishments in Rawalpindi and Lahore were amongst those that faced the wrath of Khan’s supporters. 

Situation eased a little after the Supreme Court of Pakistan deemed the arrest unlawful and mandated Khan's immediate release. On 12 May, Islamabad High Court granted two weeks bail to Khan. But, shortly after his release, Khan accused the army chief Asim Munir of playing a role in his arrest. Meanwhile, Khan's wife Bushra Bibi was granted bail till May 23 by a Pakistani court. Imran Khan returned to his home in Lahore after having locked himself in the Islamabad high court premises for hours for fear of re-arrest despite bail having been granted earlier. 

In another twist, Imran Khan claimed in a video statement that following his arrest,  government buildings and the Lahore Corps Commander's House were ransacked under an "organised conspiracy". He also claimed that the country's powerful military establishment has planned to keep him in jail for the next 10 years under sedition charges. Khan said in a series of tweets after a meeting of his party leaders at his Lahore residence: "So now the complete London plan is out. Using pretext of violence while I was inside the jail, they have assumed the role of judge, jury and executioner. The plan now is to humiliate me by putting Bushra Begum in jail, and using some sedition law to keep me inside for next ten years." 

Imran Khan was considered to be the preferred candidate of the Pakistan Army, but tensions didn’t take long to build up. His tense relations with the army are not new. Last year, he was charged under anti-terror laws after accusing the police and judiciary of detaining and torturing an aide. Later, he survived what is described as an assassination attempt during a political rally in Wazirabad, Punjab. 

Imran Khan became the first Pakistani Prime Minister to be removed from office through a no-confidence motion in April 2022. In the dramatic events surrounding his removal, Khan had claimed that the US was behind his removal because he conducted an independent foreign policy and had friendly relations with China and Russia. His removal had also led to protests from his supporters across Pakistan. Khan faces several other charges (about 100 cases). One of these, the Toshakhana case (August 2022) relates to failure to disclose the specifics of the Toshakhana presents in his yearly asset report to the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s army seems to be losing patience and said “restraint will no longer be exercised” on groups attacking military installations. It vowed to take legal action against those who damaged property after Khan’s dramatic arrest. “The Armed Forces are well aware of the planners, instigators, abettors and perpetrators of these attacks and attempts to create distortions in this regard are absolutely futile,” the military said in a statement without naming anyone. “Those involved in these heinous crimes against the military installations and personal/equipment will be brought to justice through trials under relevant laws of Pakistan including Pakistan Army Act and Official Secret Act.”

The army has ruled Pakistan, directly or indirectly almost from the beginning. Pakistan has faced three military coups, the first being very early in its life in 1958, soon after Pakistan was created in 1947.  Four military dictators have exercised direct power over decades. Even when in power, civilian governments in Pakistan need to constantly look over their shoulders for the army’s approval. The attacks on army establishments in Lahore and Rawalpindi, therefore, caught the eye of the world. How Imran Khan’s tussle with the army plays out, will be evident over the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, the long-suffering Pakistani people can not hope for succour as political instability is added to the mix of the many challenges Pakistan faces.  

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