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Imran Khan: “I’m afraid Pakistan is headed towards martial law”

The country’s former PM warns that its spiralling political crisis could end as a brutal military dictatorship.

By Bruno Maçães

Editor’s note: This interview was originally published on 23 May 2023. It has been republished as Imran Khan, along with his wife Bushra Bibi, were sentenced to 14 years in prison on 31 January 2024 on charges of corruption. This follows the 10-year sentence Khan received on 30 January for sharing state secrets. Khan has previously said all charges against him are politically motivated. Pakistan heads to the polls for parliamentary elections on 8 February.  

When I visited Islamabad in November 2022, I saw a barrier of freight containers blocking the Red Zone, the district that houses Pakistan’s most important government buildings. This was a police measure aimed at stopping the protests of the former prime minister Imran Khan from escalating, after he called for a national demonstration, the Haqeeqi Azadi march. Ousted from government in April 2022, Khan was using his enormous popularity to force the coalition that had replaced him to call for elections.

He was the victim of an assassination attempt on 3 November, in the early days of the march. In Islamabad, during my visit, most people seemed to believe in the theory of a lone assailant, even some who were close to Khan. An investigation went nowhere and it wasn’t long before another momentous political development occurred: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif named Lieutenant General Asim Munir as the new army chief.

If the political establishment wanted to calm rising tensions in the country, they chose the wrong person. The new army chief, the effective ruler in Pakistan, was viewed as hostile to Khan. In the weeks leading up to November Khan had accused Munir, along with his allies, of meddling in politics and plotting against the former prime minister. In 2019, for reasons that remain unclear, Khan removed Munir as head of the ISI spy agency after only eight months in the post. I thought in November that were Shehbaz Sharif to select Munir, the prospect for political and social stability was unlikely. Everyone would see it as a statement of open war against Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Khan would have to respond. By December civil war seemed to loom.

On 9 May this year, after making increasingly direct accusations against the army chief and the intelligence services, Khan was arrested from inside the High Court in Islamabad by paramilitary troops. He was charged with corruption and Pakistan took another step towards the twin dangers of social chaos and military rule. Violent protests erupted after the arrest, including attacks on military institutions (in the interview below Imran Khan refers to these attacks as “arson”). The government called it the darkest moment in Pakistan’s history, its own 11 September, and promised to be uncompromising with the “terrorists” and those inciting them, especially Khan. For his part, Khan tweeted just hours before our interview, on 22 May, that the riots were Pakistan’s Reichstag fire, a pretext used in Nazi Germany to abolish the constitution and create a state of emergency.

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Khan maintains that his enemies are determined to destroy his party. Its whole senior leadership is in jail. When I interviewed him, Khan sounded more pessimistic than ever. I sensed from his words that he sees military rule as practically inevitable, and he believes it could be considerably more brutal than in the past. He told me elections will only be allowed if PTI no longer exists. The journalist Khurram Husain wrote in a recent essay that previous stalemates such as this have often ended in a military coup.

Will Pakistan suffer a destructive wave of political violence? Might Khan reach some kind of compromise with the military establishment and return to power after elections later this year? Some might even hope for a refounding of the Pakistani political system, with the influence of the military greatly reduced, which Khan has always refrained from promising, as he may doubt he would be capable of delivering it. Myanmar, Syria or Sudan offer cautionary tales, and they are increasingly mentioned in the Pakistani press. The crisis in Pakistan, a nuclear power, could quickly take on global relevance: external actors such as China, the US or Saudi Arabia would pick their favourite political players.

When I spoke to Imran Khan, he seemed convinced this would be his last interview, rating the chances he would be arrested on 23 May when he was due to appear in court as high as 80 per cent. It didn’t happen. Khan return to Lahore on Tuesday evening after several hours of interrogation in Islamabad. But another of his predictions seems to be materialising: after five arrests in 10 days, PTI senior leader Shireen Mazari, a former human rights minister, announced she would be quitting the party and active politics.

In our interview, Khan doubted the Supreme Court would be able to come to his aid in the future, as it did on 11 May, two days after his arrest, when it ordered his release from jail. Or even that the Supreme Court would be able to stop Pakistan’s slide towards what he sees as a brutal military dictatorship.

[See also: The arrest of Imran Khan foreshadows a dark chapter for Pakistan]

Bruno Maçães: You have spoken of a fascist set-up in Pakistan – mass arrest of your political leadership and also journalists. You tweeted about the Reichstag fire, comparing it to the protests or riots in Pakistan on 9 March earlier this year. Do you think Pakistan is on the path to a fascist regime?

Imran Khan: I’m afraid we are headed towards martial law. What was not [included] in the tweet, is we already know military courts are being set up. In one of the provinces, they are going to try people under the Army Act [introduced in 1952 and designed to put military personnel on trial under the military’s own legal code]. I mean, it is a complete negation of democracy and our justice system. The constitution doesn’t allow it. Firstly, our democracy is being dismantled. Already the country is run by the army chief.

BM: Do you want to send a message to General Asim Munir, the army chief?

IK: I have been making overtures, since I was [pushed] out of power, to [General Qamar Javed Bajwa] the previous army chief who was instrumental in removing my government. [Because] people are suffering today in Pakistan, because our growth rate was 6.5 per cent when we [PTI] left and it’s now, according to the World Bank, down to 0.4 per cent. So that’s massive unemployment and the worst inflation in our history. So just to give you an idea… it was 12.4 per cent when we left; it is 36.4 per cent today. So I approached him [Bajwa], and I said, “Free and fair elections will bring economic stability and political stability. A government coming in with a public mandate will then give investors and the business community confidence.” Because he had removed me, he figured out that if there were elections, we would win. Out of the 37 by-elections in the last few months, we won 30. Opinion polls for PTI were north of 70 per cent in popularity.

He didn’t hold elections. Then comes the next army chief, Asim Munir. I said, “I’ve heard that you’re coming in with an agenda of this previous prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and who obviously wanted someone who was anti-me [in power].” But I said, “Look, we are not going to stand in your way. All we want is you to be impartial.” And that was the last message between me and him. This is when he became the army chief.

BM: If you could talk to him today, what would you tell him?

IK: I would tell him today [that] the route he has taken is going to be a disaster for Pakistan. The distance between the people of Pakistan and the Pakistan army – this gulf – will widen. It happened in 1970 when Pakistan had elections and the party in East Pakistan – Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League – won the elections. But the Pakistan army, along with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, did not allow him to become the prime minister. Instead, army action took place against Mujibur Rahman and the country was devastated – we lost half our country [as East Pakistan seceded, creating the independent state of Bangladesh].

So my message to the army chief is we are heading in the same direction now; you can’t wish away the biggest party in Pakistan. I’ve never seen such a campaign using the pretext of the arson that took place [on 9 May]. They have over 10,000 workers now in jail, all my senior leadership is in jail. There are 150 cases, four terrorism cases, on me. I had no idea what was going on for four days. [The army has] clamped down on the media; the court decisions are not listened to – the courts give bail, the police [once again jail party] workers or leadership. [Members are] pressured to leave the party. Five or six of them have said, we are giving up politics.

And my advice to him is that this is a disaster for Pakistan. Because when you dismantle the democracy of a country, you take away freedom. You take away the fundamental rights, you destroy the state institutions on which a country stands – like the judiciary or like the police, which is now being used the way it is.

BM: Who do you blame for this? Do you blame Munir? Do you blame the army? Do you blame the ruling parties, the Pakistan Muslim League and the Pakistan People’s Party, and the families they’re associated with, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos? Just so we’re clear.

IK: Look, the ruling parties are very clear. The last 60 years Pakistan have been ruled half the time by martial law, military governments – and the other half by these two parties, family parties. They’ve always opposed each other, they put each other in jail on corruption cases. Now they’ve got together against me. They gave themselves immunity from corruption cases the moment I was dislodged; [there were] $5bn of corruption cases on them. Now, they are scared that if I come back – and I talk about rule of law, that no one is above law – so they’re scared that the immunity will be taken back.

On the other hand, the army chief, he’s made some statements… [that made clear] he is now determined to demolish PTI. So it’s quite frightening his mindset right now. All I can say is this is a disaster for the future of Pakistan.

BM: Do you still believe there will be elections this year? The 14 May election in Punjab did not happen. It seems more and more unlikely that we’ll have elections this year. What is your opinion?

IK: I think there will only be elections if they think that the PTI is completely demolished. So either our people will be in jail, or they will be forced to switch loyalties. I mean, I’ve grown up with this country, my age is more or less the same as my country [and] I’ve seen martial laws here. What has never happened in this country is the way women have been treated by this regime, it’s never happened here. Because firstly, women have never participated in politics. [For the] first time, PTI was a party which had the participation of women. Google some of our big rallies and you will see big participation of women. But what they have done is they’ve gone after women, and hundreds of women have been jailed. But even worse, why some of [our] people are leaving politics, because they break into people’s houses. And they do not respect the sanctity of women, so people can’t take this.

They can take everything, but they cannot accept the abuse of women. A minister in our government – they went into his house, and they [arrested] him but they took his wife as well. This is the great fear right now in this country. The terror is about the way families are [treated when] in the middle of the night 30 or 40 police barge in…

BM: You’re going to Islamabad on 23 May to appear in court. What are your expectations?

IK: I am 80 per cent convinced they will put me in jail – because everyone else is in jail. [Editor’s note: Khan was not detained in court on 23 May.] But then what happens? This is untenable. This cannot go on. [Will] the Supreme Court judges allow the dismantling of our democratic structures to take place? Will they allow complete violation of the constitution? The fundamental rights, the total muzzling of media?

The most frightening thing is [that] one of our best… is a journalist called Imran Riaz. He’s disappeared. We are scared. Maybe they have tortured him so much, they are waiting for him to recover and then produce him in court. Will the Supreme Court allow this to happen? Because if it does, then the Supreme Court will completely lose its credibility. And what has happened, the way our democracy has evolved, the one thing that evolved over a period of time is a Supreme Court which asserted its independence. It started in 2007, in what was called the lawyers’ movement when [the then-president] General [Pervez] Musharraf removed the chief justice, and the country rallied behind the chief justice. Since then, our Supreme Court has been quite independent.

Now, will they allow this to happen? Otherwise, there is no democracy left. The only hope now is the Supreme Court.

BM: The Supreme Court is the only obstacle before martial law and military rule?

IK: Absolutely. Already they have defied the orders of the Supreme Court because the Punjab, which is 60 per cent of Pakistan [by population] – the election was supposed to be held on the 14 May. But it didn’t happen.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

[See also: When the internet goes dark]

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