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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Repeated arrests, filthy cells: Inside Pakistan’s crackdown

Nearly 5,000 of Khan’s aides and supporters have been arrested since May 9, according to Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah. Rights groups have raised concerns over arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances.

Hammad Azhar, who has served as Pakistan’s finance and energy minister, says police and plain-clothed officials have burst into his home six times in recent weeks, smashed his belongings, and threatened his 82-year-old father, warning that his daughter would be abducted.

Last weekend, he said police and “unknown people” took his father to a police station and released him after they went through his phone for an hour.

Azhar, who is in hiding, says he is under pressure from a “fascist regime” to leave the political party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

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“All this is being done because I continue to stand with my party and Imran Khan,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Like other senior members of the PTI who have been arrested in recent weeks, in some cases several times, Azhar avoided directly naming the powerful army as being responsible.

Khan however has done so, throwing down the gauntlet to an institution that has ruled the country directly for three decades or exerted considerable influence on the civilian government.

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“It is completely the establishment,” the former cricket hero said in an interview. “Establishment obviously means the military establishment, because they are really now openly — I mean, it’s not even hidden now — they’re just out in the open.”

The government and police deny any coercion of Khan’s supporters. An army spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Azhar is wanted on terrorism charges for violent nationwide protests in May and no warrants were needed to raid his home, said Punjab police chief Usman Anwar. Azhar denies the charges.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan has been unsettled since Khan was ousted from office as prime minister in 2022 and launched street protests for fresh elections. A full-blown economic crisis, with runaway inflation, a plunge in the currency, and the possibility of a debt default, has added to the turmoil.

Khan’s arrest on corruption charges in May, which he says was at the behest of the generals, led to violent nationwide protests, attacks on an air base, military buildings, including its army’s headquarters, and the burning of a top general’s home, allegedly by the former prime minister’s supporters.

There has never been that kind of challenge to Pakistan’s military, which has held sway over the country since independence in 1947 with a mixture of fear and respect.