‘Pakistan’s democracy is hanging by a thread,’ says Imran Khan on returning home after arrest – The Guardian

Imran Khan

Former PM ramps up attacks on country’s military leaders as ministers plot to arrest him again

Sat 13 May 2023 at 6:13pm BST

Crowds gathered peacefully and huddled outside the home of the man they call “the savior of Pakistan,” hoping to catch a glimpse. Two days earlier, the same streets in the city of Lahore had become a war zone as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets violently, looting buildings, burning cars, throwing petrol bombs and clashed with police, killing several from gunshot wounds.

On Saturday, however, there was calm. Late last night, former Prime Minister Imran Khan had finally returned to his home after being arrested by 100 paramilitary officers at the compound of Islamabad’s Supreme Court during some of the most turbulent days in the country’s recent history. He was held for two days, but then, to the surprise of many observers, was released on bail and allowed to walk around after his arrest was ruled unlawful by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. With Khan’s release, the violence subsided.

The devotion to the 70-year-old Khan was evident in the hundreds who gathered at his gate. “Khan is the sole leader of Pakistan,” said Shaf Ali, 23, an IT worker. “We will protest again for Khan as he is the only hope in Pakistan and he is fighting for us.”

A supporter of Imran Khan throws a rock at police officers during clashes in Islamabad May 10. Photo: AP

Aftab Ahmed, 18, called herself “Khan’s soldier” and added: “They have to kill us before they arrest Khan again.”

Khan is now free again, at least for the time being, and has announced mass protests on an unprecedented scale in Pakistan pending the early calling of October’s parliamentary elections. If they happen and Khan is allowed to compete, the consensus is that he would claim an overwhelming victory. The government, meanwhile, has pledged to arrest Khan again as soon as possible, suggesting Pakistan’s tumultuous days are likely far from over.

“Today our democracy is hanging by a thread,” Khan said in his first public address since his release, calling those who persecuted him “the mafia”. His speech was not televised.

Imran Khan: Who is the man splitting Pakistan? – Video explainer video

He also intensified his crusade against the Pakistani military, which for decades has controlled politics through coups or backdoor influence, but which few have dared to criticize directly for fear of being imprisoned, kidnapped or killed with impunity. Khan accused army chief Asim Munir of ordering his arrest and accused him of standing above the rule of law.

Khan was previously a close ally of the military and came to power in 2018 with its tacit support, although he denies the army rigged his election. However, after two years of close cooperation, the relationship broke up and he was relieved of his post. Since then, Khan has accused the military and the government that toppled him of colluding with “foreign powers” and publicly blamed the US government for its involvement, which it denied. In his speech on Saturday, he told his supporters that “the army chief stabbed me in the back and put Pakistan’s most notorious criminals in power”.

As he made increasingly provocative allegations against senior military figures – Pakistan’s most feared men – accusing them of involvement in international conspiracies and attempts to assassinate his life, many felt Khan was playing with fire. Accusations against him mounted and he now faces nearly 100 cases involving corruption, hate speech and even blasphemy, and if convicted he would likely be banned from politics.

Analysts agreed that the decision to release Khan on bail gave him heart. His anti-military and anti-Western narratives are gaining popularity, as is his portrayal of himself as a man of the people at a time of economic turmoil in Pakistan, where inflation is at record highs and several people have died in line for food rations.

“Khan is the only politician who has challenged the power and corruption of the military,” said Mohammed Adeel, 24, a student. “The military only gets involved in politics to make money and get property, it has to end.”

But despite Khan’s bravery, not everyone is convinced he genuinely intends to end the military’s role in politics, given his long-standing ties to the establishment, suspecting he is instead trying to sow division in order to secure his return to power make possible.

Husain Haqqani, a scholar and former Pakistani ambassador, said Khan is “a populist who is not anti-establishment worldview; he just wants to control it.”

“Could Imran Khan be considered a politician who believes in civilian supremacy? I doubt it,” said Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, an influential former senator and former adviser to the prime minister on human rights. “A key part of his political strategy since his fall has been to make desperate attempts to mend his strained ties with the military.”

Supporters throw rose petals at a vehicle transporting Khan as he arrives at his home in Lahore on Saturday. Photo: KM Chaudary/AP

Nonetheless, Khokhar said that Khan’s political popularity was undeniable. “With inflation skyrocketing and the judiciary by his side, it’s safe to assume his return to power is safe when elections take place. But will the military allow this? Only time can tell.”

For Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government, Khan’s release was a bitter pill, claiming she had never received such treatment, while several opposition figures were jailed for months when Khan was prime minister.

Imran Khan was released on bail in the corruption case and has assured he will not be arrested again

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, who promised the government would arrest Khan again, claimed Khan’s aim is to spread “anarchy and chaos” in the country. “He’s created a cult following since 2014,” he said.

Sharif has given authorities 72 hours to trace anyone involved in the violence, which he says was “planned and instigated” by Khan. “There is no example of such hostility and brutality in the history of the country,” said the prime minister.


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