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Pakistan Imprisons Opposition To Silence Dissent

Police officers escort Maryam Nawaz when she appears in an accountability court in Lahore on August 9.

A year after assuming power, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s administration and the country’s powerful military appear to be seeking to prevent opposition protests by arresting and imprisoning political leaders and activists.

While government leaders deny engaging in a systematic campaign against the opposition, candid recent comments by a senior minister hinted at a game plan focused on maintaining power by persecuting the opposition.

“We are arresting everyone who is a thief,” Interior Minister Ijaz Shah recently told supporters, using a Punjabi-language expletive to express his hatred for the opposition.

“Now who will be left [free] outside? Who will fight [against the government]? Who will contest elections?” he asked supporters of his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party. “If someone is left [outside prison], only then will they fight,” he said.

Shah, a former brigadier general and spymaster, was allegedly engaged in political engineering and targeting regime opponents during the reign of military dictator Pervez Musharraf from 1999 to 2008.

The list of politicians jailed or detained over charges of corruption, terrorism, and drug smuggling is growing. These include a former president, two former prime ministers, several former cabinet members, lawmakers, and scores of activists.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is arguably the leading political prisoner in Pakistan. He was sacked by the country’s Supreme Court in July 2017 for undeclared assets abroad. The next year, he was sentenced to seven years in a graft case.

Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party, denied any wrongdoing and accused the military and the courts of conspiring against him. The military and the judiciary deny targeting Sharif or other politicians.

In early July, Sharif’s daughter and heir apparent, Maryam Nawaz, attempted to turn the tables on the government. On July 6, she released a video of the judge who had convicted the former prime minister in December 2018. The secretly shot video showed Judge Arshad Malik telling a purported PML-N member that unidentified people had coerced him into convicting Sharif after blackmailing him with compromising video footage.

Nawaz soon became a leading figure in the opposition’s agitation movement aimed at bringing down the PTI government. She encouraged opposition parties to challenge the Pakistan’s military monopoly over power in allegedly orchestrating the PTI’s election win in July 2018 and dictating key domestic and foreign policies. The Pakistani Army denies meddling in politics while the PTI denies getting a leg up from army generals.

A hallmark of her campaign, which attracted large crowds in the eastern province of Punjab, was a call to march on Islamabad. Home to Punjabis, the country’s largest ethnic group, the most populous province claims a lion’s share of national resources and dominates the country’s economy, parliament, civil bureaucracy, and armed forces.

On August 8, she was arrested by the anti-corruption National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in a graft case related to a sugar mill owned by her family.

“History will remember that Imran Khan, who used to speak of justice, has arrested Maryam Nawaz without any new conviction,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), a leading opposition group, told lawmakers.

Bilawal’s father and former President Asif Ali Zardari and his aunt, Faryal Talpur, are some of the most prominent PPP leaders detained by NAB. Both are members of the lower house of the parliament.

But the government denies involvement in arresting opposition figures. It maintains that NAB and other investigating agencies and courts are working independently to probe, arrest, and convict what the government says are corrupt politicians.

“The National Accountability Bureau and the courts were working independently and without interference of the incumbent government,” Firdous Ashiq Awan, a media affairs assistant to Khan, told a Pakistani television station. NAB authorities also point to the arrests and investigations of some government figures as evidence of their impartiality.

But opposition politicians say the government is using NAB as a tool to victimize the opposition. The arrest of opposition figures sharply spiked after audio and video clips surfaced allegedly showing the organization’s head, Javed Iqbal, having “inappropriate” conversations with a woman. The former judge branded the clips as “baseless, fake, and based on lies.” A regulatory body fined several news channels for broadcasting the clips, and the scandal appeared to die down without costing Iqbal his job.

While NAB is at the center of most cases against politicians, some face more sinister charges. On July 1, Pakistan’s Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) arrested lawmaker Rana Sanaullah on drug-smuggling charges. PML-N leaders immediately declared it part of their victimization by the PTI.

But Shehryar Afridi, the antinarcotics minister, said the authorities will back their case with evidence and “no one will be allowed to get away. No one is above the law."

As Sanaullah’s case goes through the initial hearings, police arrested his son-in-law, Ahmed Shehryar, on murder charges on August 9.

While leaders of major political parties mostly face anticorruption charges, a civil rights movement in northwestern Pakistan is facing the full wrath of the state. Leaders and activists of the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM) are facing terrorism and sedition charges after a military spokesman said its “time is up" in April because it was “playing into the hands of others.”

In May, authorities arrested PTM lawmakers Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar after the military killed 13 of the movement’s supporters near a check post in North Waziristan tribal district, according to witnesses and the movement’s members. Video emerging from the May 26 incident appear to back their version. But the military said it only responded after protesters led by lawmakers Wazir and Dawar first opened fire on security forces in Khar Qamar, a remote village near the Afghan border.

Since then, the two have been kept in maximum-security prisons and their case has moved at a snail’s pace. The speaker of the National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament, has so far barred them from participating in parliamentary deliberations, which is viewed as a privilege of MPs. On August 18, an antiterrorism court in the northwestern city of Bannu refused to grant them bail in the Khar Qamar case.

Since its emergence in February 2018, the PTM has faced continuous persecution for demanding rights, accountability, and security for Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority, the Pashtuns, whom the PTM says have borne the brunt of the country’s domestic war on terrorism. Hundreds of PTM leaders and activists have been imprisoned on rioting, terrorism, and sedition charges.

But Islamabad seems to be in no mood to address political grievances. On August 19, Khan granted a new term in office to military chief Qamar Javed Bajwa in an apparent bid to keep the powerful military on his side as he faces opposition protests.

Talat Hussain, an independent journalist in Islamabad, says Khan’s administration sees no threat from the opposition or public outrage. In a recent analysis, Hussain said that the military stands with Khan as he tightens his grip over power and muzzles the media with harsh censorship.

“They have concluded that the outside world is not interested in domestic Pakistani affairs, which means that Imran Khan has a free hand in molding the domestic situation,” Hussain said. “The opposition political parties and the masses are unable to resist [the government].”

Still, opposition political parties are planning protests for the fall, when holding large demonstrations will become more feasible after the hot summer months.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.