With military tribunals, press intimidation and mass arrests, Pakistani leaders are seeking to destroy support for former prime minister Imran Khan ahead of the election, analysts say.
Khan’s brief arrest earlier this month sparked days of angry street protests against the powerful military seen as having orchestrated his downfall.
Islamabad called the violence “anti-state”, justifying huge roundups and the reactivation of military courts to try civilians who targeted government and military buildings. Journalists, lawyers and activists from Khan’s Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party denounce campaigns of intimidation and influence they blame on the “establishment”, a euphemism for the army which supports the civil government.
“They want Imran Khan to understand that he cannot fight with the establishment,” said analyst Hasan Askari.
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“People are broken,” he told AFP. “By exerting pressure in different ways, they are trying to put politicians in their place.” The military’s media wing did not respond to repeated requests for comment from AFP. Crushing the opposition Since Khan was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote last year, he has launched unprecedented criticism of the military – long seen as Pakistan’s power brokers who, according to analysts, backed his coming to power in 2018.
Pakistan’s most popular politician has been embroiled in dozens of court cases which he says are fabricated to nullify the PTI and prevent him from contesting elections due this fall.
In the days following the protests, more than a dozen of its top leaders were repeatedly arrested and released on allegations of inciting violence.
At press conferences after his release, some of his closest aides condemned the violence and announced that they were separating from Khan.
“They put everyone in jail,” complained Khan in a speech. “If you say the magic words, ‘We are no longer at PTI,’ then you will be released.”
Thousands of grassroots supporters have also been arrested under the anti-terrorism law.
At Khan’s power base in the eastern city of Lahore, a popular PTI supporter said her son was arrested after peacefully protesting.
“It was clear he had been beaten and was visibly scared,” the housewife told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“He hasn’t set foot outside the house since. He received calls from unknown numbers telling him he was being watched.”
Amnesty International said “overly broad and vague anti-terrorism provisions” are being used and “a veil of fear hangs over Khan’s supporters following the arbitrary arrests of numerous opposition leaders”.
“It’s a familiar story. A political party, thinking it could take on the country’s all-powerful establishment, crosses a red line and quickly finds itself losing a ruthless, one-sided war of attrition,” said said an editorial in the Dawn newspaper. .
“The only way out is to do exactly as you’re told.”
Censorship Journalists in Karachi told AFP they were receiving streams of briefings from the army’s public relations branch targeting Khan’s reputation.
“We get a lot of slanderous news from ‘big brothers’ on WhatsApp, which is supposed to be confidential and we are obligated to broadcast without any attribution,” a TV reporter said on condition of anonymity, using an understatement for the army. .
Another TV reporter said reports used to be sent to them once or twice a week, but the frequency has now increased to five or six times a day.
“We observe self-censorship voluntarily to avoid any harm,” admitted another journalist.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Amnesty International, prominent pro-PTI reporter Imran Riaz Khan has been missing since his abduction by military intelligence two weeks ago.
The media has been saturated with pro-army content since Khan’s arrest, including a hastily announced “Martyrs’ Day” on Thursday, where children covered the graves of slain soldiers with petals and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called Khan an insurgent against law and order.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, said it was “not surprising that the military wanted to apply a public relations blitz.”
“He suffered significant blows to his popularity and even his credibility because of Khan’s anti-army stories,” he added.
– Fight against the courts – Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has openly criticized the Supreme Court after it ruled Khan’s arrest on corruption charges illegal and ordered his release, calling it a “burial of justice”.
Supreme Court lawyer Gohar Ali Khan, a member of Khan’s legal team, said the judiciary faced an “extraordinary situation”.
“Police behavior, delaying tactics and other legal complications purposely created by the authorities are an obstacle to speedy justice,” he told AFP.
The government has meanwhile approved the use of military tribunals to try protesters accused of damaging military or public buildings during the riots – a power last used to try civilians suspected of militancy.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said it was “the consequences of Mr Khan’s actions”.
“I believe that if the authority of the state is established, if the law takes its course, we can work for political stability,” he told AFP earlier this week.
As simultaneous confrontations unfold between Khan and the army chief, and the government and the judiciary, the former chief becomes increasingly isolated.
“My final view is that senior civilian and military leaders seem to be in full agreement with this goal of completely dismantling the PTI,” analyst Kugelman said.
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