Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told international media that he expects imminent arrest to prevent him from running in the upcoming elections in October. “They want me in prison during the elections,” Khan told the International press.
Khan claims that plans continue to arrest him on trumped us charges. Khan had been ‘arrested’ under the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Ordinance 1999 for taking millions in dollars in bribe from property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain in a land allotment case.
The Supreme Court later declared Khan’s arrest “unlawful”. After his release and the order of a protective bail for the next two weeks, he confronted Pakistan’s powerful military head-on, saying: “I doubt there is any sense in the Army Chief right now because he’s so petrified if I win the elections I’ll denotify him… he’s dismantling the future of this country to protect himself.”
The ensuing protests resulted in injuries, damage to public property, and loss of lives. Journalists, too, faced violence and harassment from the police. A three-day ban on social media outlets aimed at stifling the spread of misinformation severely impacted various sectors and led to financial losses.
Pakistan has seen mass public protests before, but never like this. The PTI’s mode of dissent shook the nation. The rioters ransacked and set ablaze the Corps Commander House in Lahore, a highly fortified bastion of historical significance. They stole items such as a golf kit, frozen strawberries, salad, a bowl of korma (meat dish) with a cold drink, and even pet peacocks, claiming these to be their ‘right’ as taxpayers.
Other objects of vandalism and arson included public buses, an ambulance belonging to the humanitarian Edhi Foundation, and police vans. In the north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a school was torched, besides a major interchange and the state-owned Radio Pakistan building in Peshawar. Another arrest of khan will certainly precipitate further mass protests sending the country into paralysis.
Rumors about impending martial law also circulate, but the army says this option is not on the table. “The army chief and army’s senior leadership are committed to upholding the continuity of democracy,” the army’s spokesperson told Geo TV.
However, observers believe that despite the change of guard at the army’s top level – the retirement of Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the appointment of Gen. Asim Munir – the military’s institutional mentality and tactics remain unchanged.
“Civilian governments are just faces that keep changing; the real power holders are the same,” says journalist Hasan Ali of The Nation, calling the army “an institution that operates with complete impunity.”
Ali was among those picked up by the police in the midst of the “revolutionary” protests in Rawalpindi. A Punjab police officer brandished a pistol at him and ordered Ali to follow him towards General Headquarters (GHQ).
“I complied, and after walking a brief distance, a man in plainclothes forcefully grabbed me and started dragging me, ripping my shirt down,” Ali said.He said the policeman took him to a group of security personnel comprising Punjab police and plainclothes: “One smashed me on the right side of my skull with a stick.”
A plainclothes officer tossed Ali into the police van and took him to the nearest police station. When Ali asked for an explanation, the officer said he had seen him chanting slogans. Ali denies these allegations. At the police station, Ali explained his side of the story and showed his press credentials to the inspecting officer. The response, he says, was: “Main aap ko laya hoon?…na hi mujhe aap ko chornay ka ikhtiyaar hai.” (Did I bring you here?… Neither do I have the authority to release you). An unidentified individual then took Ali and four other detainees to the top floor of the police station, confiscated their phones, and locked them up. Ali could reach out using a small phone hidden on his person, which he used to text his parents. After securing his release, Ali returned with a lawyer for the others, but they were missing. Within hours of Imran Khan’s arrest, the government blocked Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube “indefinitely” in an attempt to combat “lies and propaganda” being spewed on social media by Khan’s party.
Such censorship is not new in Pakistan. From military dictators like Gen. Zia-ul Haq and, most recently Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to elected dispensations, successive governments have censored or banned organisations, individuals, parties, and media. A notable example is the 2012 ban on YouTube which lasted for three years after the platform refused to comply with the government’s request to remove ‘objectionable’ content.
The ban made it more difficult for the media to provide timely and accurate coverage. It also had far-reaching consequences beyond limiting access to information. The country’s freelance industry, the fourth largest in the world, has suffered a loss of $2 million per day. Not helpful, particularly for a country already experiencing a severe economic crunch.
In today’s digital age, for many, earning a livelihood is now directly tied to social media and internet access. The ban heavily impacted delivery and transport services that rely on the internet to take orders and market themselves, such as ride-hailing and food-delivery companies. Failure to respond to customers promptly can significantly impact business, comments Hamza Bhatti, a seasoned content creator based in Islamabad.
Determined social-media users circumvented the Internet ban by using VPN services to access restricted platforms. Data from Top10VPN, a website that reviews and rates VPN services, shows a significant increase in demand on May 9-11, skyrocketing to over a thousand percent (1,329%) compared to the preceding 28-day daily average, which the research does not mention.
According to the estimates of Netblocks, an organisation that monitors internet connectivity worldwide, the country faces a staggering loss of $53 million per day due to the ban on internet services.
Since Pakistan’s birth over 75 years ago, it is the ‘establishment’ that has largely determined who gets political power and when to take it away. Out-of-favour politicians get disqualified from political office, imprisoned, exiled or killed.