Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif to Prosecute Imran Khan Supporters in Military Courts

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif declared on Monday that individuals who supported his predecessor, Imran Khan, and were allegedly involved in storming defense installations during recent nationwide anti-government protests, will be prosecuted in military courts.

During a session in the National Assembly, Shehbaz Sharif stated that the rioters responsible for vandalizing civilian facilities would be tried separately in anti-terrorism courts. He emphasized the severity of the situation, questioning the motives of those who attacked military properties and highlighting the need to address their actions under the Army Act, a legal framework specifically designed to try military personnel and enemies of the state.

The prime minister’s announcement comes amidst growing criticism and demands to reevaluate the decision to prosecute civilians under the Pakistan Army Act, with critics arguing that it infringes upon citizens’ right to a fair trial.

Imran Khan, widely regarded as the most popular national politician according to opinion polls, and his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which is the largest in the country, have vehemently opposed the charges leveled against them.

Khan, a 70-year-old former prime minister, has accused intelligence agencies of orchestrating violence against army targets, claiming that they are using these acts to justify a nationwide crackdown on his political party in order to marginalize it ahead of the upcoming elections in the fall.

The violent protests erupted across Pakistan two weeks ago on May 9, following Khan’s forceful arrest on corruption charges by paramilitary forces outside a court in the capital city of Islamabad. Demonstrators in various cities gathered outside military buildings, chanting anti-army slogans, setting military symbols ablaze, and even storming the residence of a regional army commander. The protests escalated into clashes with riot police, resulting in several casualties and hundreds of injuries over several days.

Khan was released on bail after spending two days in detention and has directly accused the Pakistani military chief, General Asim Munir, of orchestrating his arrest.

Since then, Pakistani authorities have arrested thousands of Khan supporters, including senior PTI leaders, with both men and women among the detainees. Police have faced allegations of sexually harassing female detainees and subjecting others to custodial torture.

In recent days, more than a dozen PTI leaders and former lawmakers have defected from the party in support of the military, a move that Khan and independent critics argue has been influenced by coercion from the state.

Military officials, including General Asim Munir, have condemned the recent attacks on defense installations and memorials, labeling them as “intolerable.”

On Monday, Khan addressed his supporters via a Twitter Space session, drawing parallels between the “oppression of his party workers” and the genocide in Nazi Germany. He defended the peaceful protests staged by his supporters outside military installations, asserting that it is their constitutional right to do so.

The Sharif government has restricted local television channels from airing statements and speeches made by the opposition leader.

According to the PTI, more than 220,000 people participated in Monday’s Twitter Space session with Khan. In veiled criticism directed at the military, Khan stated that the “masterminds” behind the campaign to suppress his party lack understanding of politics, history, and human behavior. He further questioned whether millions of people would be jailed to prevent the truth from being exposed in the era of social media.

Khan disclosed that he would appear before an anti-graft court in Islamabad on Tuesday to seek bail, acknowledging the possibility of being arrested again. He urged his supporters to maintain peace in the event of his arrest and resist any further crackdown by authorities.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, remarked, “We are witnessing an escalating campaign to sideline, if not completely eliminate, what is likely Pakistan’s most popular political party. This extensive crackdown across Pakistani politics is not just an assault on Imran Khan and his party but an assault on democracy itself.”

Political rivals have accused Khan of assuming the prime minister’s position in 2018 with military support and subsequently losing power after a falling out with the military establishment. However, the army denies these allegations.

Khan’s coalition government was toppled in April 2022 through a parliamentary vote of no confidence, a move he rejected as illegal and claimed was orchestrated by the military in collaboration with Sharif and the United States.

The former cricket star-turned-politician has been confronted with numerous legal challenges, including accusations of corruption, sedition, and incitement to terrorism, since his removal from office. Khan has consistently denied all allegations and has blamed the military for orchestrating his legal troubles to disqualify him from office and prevent his return to power.

Adam Weinstein from Washington’s Quincy Institute cautioned against marginalizing the PTI, as doing so would “disenfranchise” many Pakistanis. He emphasized Khan’s enduring popularity, particularly among the youth and urbanites.

While the military has long enjoyed an untouchable status in Pakistan, critics argue that Khan and his supporters have significantly undermined the institution’s hegemony, prompting it to reassert its influence. Having staged three coups and ruled the country for over three decades, the military’s authority has faced a challenge from the PTI, prompting politicians from other parties to acknowledge publicly that civilian governments require the support of the military to retain power.

“Pakistan’s political and business elites have an elite bargain with the security establishment. The party or coalition in power benefits from this bargain, while the opposition is left out,” stated Adam Weinstein.

He added, “Politicians who criticize the military while in the opposition often support it when they are in power. Preserving their party’s position is more important than challenging the status quo.”

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