The Imran Khan saga in Pakistan

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested in a corruption case by paramilitary rangers on Tuesday, May 9 from the premises of the Islamabad High Court as he appeared for his hearings, prompting nationwide clashes and demonstrations by his supporters. The former premier faces over 100 cases across Pakistan, ranging from incitement of violence to corruption. Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), says the charges are politically motivated and orchestrated by his opponents.

The detention led to an outpouring of rage, violence and protests on an unprecedented scale, in a first, against the country’s military, which wields considerable power in Pakistan and who have been off limits and untouched from criticism for the longest time in the 75-year history of Pakistan. Social media videos showed crowds and PTI workers and supporters breaking into properties owned by the military, including mansions of army personnel. Buses, private properties and public buildings were set ablaze in big cities. The development, when the Islamic country is already struggling on the economic and political fronts, has further pushed it on the edge.

Two days after the arrest, Pakistan’s Supreme Court three-member bench headed by the chief justice ruled that Khan’s arrest in the graft case was illegal, ordering his immediate release. Khan then went on to challenge his arrest at the High Court in the capital, Islamabad, saying that he was abducted and there was no reason to detain him. 

Internet and data service restrictions were put in place across Pakistan after the 70-year-old PTI leader was arrested in what has been the longest digital shutdown. Major social media platforms – including Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook – remain inaccessible with citizens relying on VPN to stay connected with the rest of the world. Amnesty International has called for the immediate lifting of the restrictions as millions are being affected and businesses take a hit. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the ban denies ordinary people “access to lifesaving information, interferes with access to health care, and restricts the ability of journalists to upload photos and videos documenting government overreach and abuse”. The HRW also condemned the use of force by police, urging the authorities to hold the right to peaceful protest.

In April of 2022, Khan— the head of the largest party and also the most popular leader in Pakistan at the moment — was removed from the prime minister’s office when the no-confidence motion against him succeeded, followed by calls to protest by his party to demand immediate elections. Months later, in October, he was disqualified from running for public office in the Toshakhana case, pertaining to gifts he received from foreign dignitaries. The political witch hunt aimed at preventing him from participating in elections and delaying polls altogether — with the public behind Khan, despite his past tenure marred by political repression, curbs on the media and economic turmoil, he would likely have won. A few days before the verdict, the PTI came out victorious in by-polls across the country. That indicates the support he enjoys among the masses. In November, the former PM had also escaped an assassination attempt.

The recent events leading to political chaos and his arrest are a build-up from the happenings in the early half of 2023 when a district court in Islamabad issued a non-bailable arrest warrant for Khan for skipping hearings in the Toshakhana case. In March, police raided his Lahore residence. However, they could not succeed in arresting him.

Pakistan, a nuclear power, is battling rising inflation, a crippling economy and is on the verge of defaulting. Financially strapped, it needs foreign investment to keep the economy afloat. On Friday, the country’s rupee plunged to a record low against the US dollar, which financial experts are blaming on the recent political uncertainty and unrest that followed Khan’s arrest. The development is also likely to impact negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the country is in need of fresh funding.

Despite the political victimization, the ruling coalition and the military establishment — the latter supporting Khan not long ago — have not succeeded in diminishing the former prime minister’s popularity.  If anything, most young Pakistanis see him as their only hope despite shortcomings in his previous almost 4-year tenure.

The kind of undeniable popularity Khan enjoys manifested itself with the public backlash over his detention, which could also be a reason behind his swift bail. The ultimate price for the political quagmire, however, is being paid by the working class,  the common person, as they struggle to make ends meet. Their woes continue to get worse by the day amidst the political fiasco and economic turmoil, but the crises are far from over.

About the Author
The writer is a journalist from Pakistan and an Erasmus Mundus scholar.
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