Arrest of Former Pakistan Prime Minister sends shockwaves across the nation
I watched with disbelief Tuesday as did millions around the world, as TV news footage screened images of the former Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan, being dragged by his collar from a high court and bundled into a van by armed paramilitary rangers. This was I thought, the final conclusion of a chronicle sadly foretold years before when I met and interviewed Imran Khan for Islam Channel in the Richmond home of his former wife Jemima Khan (Goldsmith) just over ten years earlier. I remember him speaking about the radical changes that he hoped to make to the political and economic regime – the tax evasion and corruption in a country, which clearly he loved deeply. I asked him bluntly if he wasn’t afraid of suffering the same fate of so many of his predecessors who had been assassinated for trying to mess with the status quo, especially as I put it ‘if he were to become the new Robin Hood of Pakistan’. He answered:
‘Look’ he said ‘life and death is in the Almighty’s hands. This is a misconception that we have control over our lives. For Pakistan to be viable, two of the twin challenges have to be taken on. One is tax evasion. Pakistan at the moment has the lowest GDP ratio anywhere in the world, 8.2%. India has 18%. If we can get up to 18% we become viable…Secondly, the other problem is corruption. Unless we tackle corruption the state just cannot go on…’
Imran Khan is the most popular political figure in Pakistan
Since my interview, Imran Khan has emerged as the most popular figure in Pakistan politics and his party, The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has become the most powerful party in Pakistan. It is a point of fact that no prime minister has yet served a full five year term, in a country where the national politics have been dominated by the army department of the Pakistan Armed forces throughout its history. Perhaps it is also true that Imran Khan is now paying the price for standing up to the one of the paymasters of the Pakistan army, the US, by his refusal to allow Pakistan to continue to act as a pawn for US foreign policy and also for directly accusing the army of being complicit in the assassination attempt made on his life on 3 November 2022, while he was delivering a speech in Wazirabad, Punjab. A no confidence vote in April last year (2022), removed Khan from office and he alleged that the opposition had colluded with the US in order to unseat him. Opposition leader, Shehbaz Sharif’s comments at the time are telling. He said:
‘We will not seek revenge. We will not put people in jails, but the law will take its course’
Raid in the High Court raises Constitutional questions
When Khan was ousted, he had called for nationwide rallies to protest what he called an ‘imported government’. Yet Tuesday’s event this week was nevertheless unprecedented. The boldness of the Pakistan establishment who were prepared to breach the last vestige of judicial independence - a court system which remarkably has remained free from government interference, by sending armed men into the High Court to arrest Khan in the middle of a bail hearing, threatened to force a constitutional crisis. The judge initially declared that this invasion was ‘tantamount to an attack on the court itself’ and Khan’s lawyers declared the arrest as illegal. But after the judge summoned senior officials and police officers to present their case, he later confirmed that all legal formalities had been fulfilled by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and that the arrest was in fact legal.
Instantaneous eruption of protests outside the court and across Pakistan
The boldness of the protestors was also something unseen in recent times. The streets outside the court and across Pakistan had instantaneously erupted with protesters who were in disbelief at the audacity of NAB in staging this crude snatch of a former Prime Minister from the chambers of the Islamabad High Court, apparently injuring Khan by hitting him over the head with an iron rod and then beating back his lawyers and security staff as he was huddled into a van.
Imran Khan is facing over 140 cases against him for crimes of blasphemy, terrorism, murder, violence and inciting violence, all of which Khan and his lawyers say are manufactured as part of a political witch hunt and an attempt to prevent him running again in the nest General election which is due to take place according to the constitution, not later than 14th October 2023. As one prominent journalist Peter Oborne, who knew Khan well from his time as a cricket prodigy, wrote in the Middle East Eye:
‘Were Khan to run - which he is fully entitled to do - he would win the largest democratic mandate ever secured by any politician in the 75-year history of Pakistan. This would be a disaster for the incumbent prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, a protege of the Sharif business dynasty that has governed Pakistan for much of the last three decades. It would be a disaster for the corrupt business interests that were being hunted down under the Khan premiership.’
Unprecedented reactions from protesters storming the Army HQ
Following Khan’s arrest hundreds of Imran Khan supporters later stormed the Pakistan Army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi and lay siege to the Corps Commander's residence in Lahore. Remarkably the response from the military was subdued and there was little if any bloodshed. Some have suggested that the passive response was an illustration of the reluctance of the military to engage with civilians in order to avoid a violent encounter. Others have said that their reticence was simply the calm before the storm.
The legal processes have seen Khan travelling almost daily 400km from the relative safety his home to the courts in Islamabad, consistently defying all attempts to have him put behind bars. It would seem that the patience of the establishment has run out and nobody can really tell when he will once again enjoy his freedom or indeed if he will be able to run as a candidate in the forthcoming election.