Islamabad, Pakistan – The political party headed by Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan has launched a “Jail Bharo Tehreek” (fill the jails) movement to “protect the fundamental rights of the people”.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party on Wednesday began its drive from the eastern city of Lahore, where authorities have imposed restrictions on public gatherings in some areas.
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In a series of tweets, Khan laid out the reasons for the “peaceful, non-violent protest against the attack on our constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights”.
“We are facing sham FIRs (first information reports filed by police) and NAB (non-bailable) cases, custodial torture, attacks on journalists and social media people,” he wrote.
The 70-year-old cricketer-turned-politician further said the protest is “against the economic meltdown” in Pakistan “brought on by a cabal of crooks who have money laundered billions in looted wealth” and caused “spiralling inflation and rising unemployment”.
media ppl. Two, it is against the economic meltdown brought on by cabal of crooks who have money laundered billions in looted wealth & gotten NROs for themselves while crushing the ppl, esp the poor & middle class, under the burden of spiralling inflation & rising unemployment.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) February 22, 2023
In a video message shared on PTI’s Twitter page, Khan said the purpose of the movement was to achieve “true freedom” in Pakistan.
“Actually, this campaign will take you to a free and happy Pakistan. And this will only happen when the state protects your fundamental rights,” he said.
Khan was removed from power in April last year after he lost a parliamentary vote of confidence. Since then, he has been holding mass protests to demand early national elections, otherwise scheduled for later this year.
PTI leader Ejaz Chaudhry told Al Jazeera that 200 party supporters would seek arrest in Lahore on Wednesday. “We will gather at Lahore’s Mall Road where we will surrender ourselves to the authorities for arrest,” he said.
Musarrat Jamshed Cheema, another PTI politician, said the purpose of the movement is to counter the “intimidation tactics” of the authorities, adding that the party workers were not afraid of going to jail.
“We are starting this movement to break the idols of fear. We are not scared of going to jail. We have thousands of volunteers eager to give up their personal freedoms,” she told Al Jazeera.
Cheema said the PTI’s top leadership was eager to surrender themselves to the police, but party chief Khan stopped them. “Some of our top leaders were keen on going to jail but Imran Khan stopped them so that the movement’s strategy and decision-making is not affected,” she said.
Amir Mir, the interim information minister of Punjab province where Lahore falls, said the authorities have imposed Section 144 in some areas of the city. Section 144 is a colonial-era law which bans the gathering of more than four people in one place.
“We don’t have enough space in Lahore jails, so we have decided to send them to Mianwali and Dera Ghazi Khan jails in the province. We have enough space there,” Mir said.
Mir said the PTI chief should set an example by leading the movement and courting arrest.
“Imran Khan must end this contradiction where he is seeking bails so he can avoid going to jail, but on the other hand is exhorting his workers to surrender. He should show his leadership and give himself up for arrest rather than asking his workers to do so,” he said.
In response, Cheema said Khan was the single most important person in the party and that it would do anything to protect him.
“He is completely prepared to go to jail and is mentally ready for it. However, the party leadership was unanimous that he must be protected at any cost. He is our foremost priority, and we all think it will be a big mistake if he goes to jail,” she said.
Political commentator and former member of parliament, Ayaz Amir, believes Khan’s PTI has managed to put pressure on the government with their protests. He called the “fill the jails” protest movement “yet another headache” for the ruling coalition in Islamabad.
“It remains to be seen how this move will impact the government,” he told Al Jazeera. “But the fact of the matter is if there are people who are willing to go to jail for Khan, it is an embarrassment for the government.”