Anger among Khan supporters in Pakistan as legal challenges mount

Imran Khan’s supporters rally behind him over the government’s actions against the cricketing icon-turned-politician.

Imran Khan, former Prime Minister, at a political rally.
Khan came under pressure last week after he was booked under Pakistan's anti-terrorism laws [File: Sohail Shahzad/EPA]

Islamabad, Pakistan – As legal cases mount against former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, his supporters have expressed anger over the government’s actions.

Khan, 69, came under pressure last week after he was booked under anti-terrorism laws for “threatening” senior police officials and a female judge who had ordered the arrest of his top aide.

While he was given protective bail until Thursday in that case, at least two more criminal cases have since been added against the cricketing icon-turned-politician, including contempt of court and unlawful assembly.

If the court finds Khan guilty of contempt, he could be disqualified from running for elections.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party says the cases are politically motivated and aimed at stopping the former prime minister from holding anti-government rallies since his removal in April this year.

Muhammed Wasim, a 23-year-old barber in the capital Islamabad, is a Khan supporter who believes his removal was unfair.

“The establishment just wanted to control Khan, but he is a strong leader who cannot be dictated by anybody,” he told Al Jazeera.

The “establishment” refers to Pakistan’s powerful military, which has ruled for more than three decades of the country’s 75-year history.

Wasim said Khan “believes in freedom for himself and freedom of this nation”.

“This is what he is also telling but those in power are not like him. They follow orders by America,” he said, alluding to a conspiracy theory pushed by the PTI that the United States was behind his removal.

Khan’s rivals in Pakistan as well as Washington have rejected the allegations.

Khan was forced to quit after his party lost a vote of confidence in parliament in April. Since then, he has been holding rallies across the country, calling for new elections.

Neelofer Raja, who teaches at a college in Islamabad, is a Khan supporter and has not missed a PTI rally in the capital since the fall of the PTI-led government. She believes the cases against Khan are not being pursued by the government, but “somebody else is pulling the strings from behind”.

“All of this is being done to pit Khan against the military. We will not allow it to happen and we are willing to lay our lives for Imran Khan,” she told Al Jazeera.

Wasim says the Pakistani institutions are singling out Khan to suppress his voice. “The cases against him are all a pressure tactic to silence him,” he said.

Sana Hassan, a young medical doctor in Islamabad, feels that, of all the political choices in the country, Khan is “still the best bet”.

“Removing him was unfair and perhaps something planned. I will blame the establishment for not supporting Imran Khan when he needed them the most,” she told Al Jazeera.

Political observers say the high-handed tactics by Pakistani authorities will cause more friction in an already divided society.

Lahore-based analyst Mehmal Sarfaraz said Khan is a “destabilising agent” in Pakistan’s political system whose likely arrest would bring further instability to the country and could be “counterproductive”.

“Khan is the most popular leader at the moment. Other political forces want to work with him to break this deadlock, but he has repeatedly said that he is willing to talk to terrorist elements but will not sit with his political rivals,” she told Al Jazeera over the telephone.

Amber Rahim Shamsi, the director of the Karachi-based Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) says the current coalition government has demonstrated as much apathy for political rights and suppression of critics as the last government headed by Khan did.

However, she added, Khan had himself previously used “unproven allegations” against rival politicians to “ingratiate himself with the military establishment and the discontented urban middle class”.

“It is a tactic he is now deploying against the army chief and other military officials – once his patrons – without naming them directly, so that he can maintain plausible deniability and keep a door to power corridors open,” she said.

The tenure of the current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, ends in November.

Asfandyar Mir, an analyst with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), says it is likely that the current political tensions will persist until November.

“In case there is pressure on the army chief internally to let up on the confrontation with Khan, one possible signal is an early announcement of a new army chief, perhaps in the next few weeks,” he told Al Jazeera.

Ahsan Butt, professor of international relations at the US-based George Mason University, says these are “dangerous times” in Pakistani politics as both Khan and the military establishment are opting for “confrontation” and “neither side is backing down”.

“The primary culprit in this entire mess is the Pakistani military establishment for its insistence to engineer political outcomes and not let the political process play out for itself. This should be a lesson for them to stop trying to stage-manage politics,” he told Al Jazeera.

Source: Al Jazeera