Pakistani authorities have launched a crackdown on former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistani party Tehreek-e-Insaf, arresting thousands of supporters of the popular opposition leader and allegedly pressuring high-ranking allies to they leave the group.
The Pakistani military and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government have reacted violently to violent protests this month sparked by the arrest of Khan by an anti-corruption agency. At least 10 people died in the protests and military buildings were vandalized.
Khan, who is out on bail, said Thursday that 10,000 PTI supporters were in jail. The government has estimated the figure to be lower.
“The state is trying to dismantle the party,” Khan said, warning that Pakistan had begun a “descent into fascism” under Sharif.
A number of senior PTI leaders have also been arrested, and some have abruptly announced they are quitting the party and politics in recent days. Among them, Fawad Chaudhry and Shireen Mazari, both former PTI ministers. Mazari announced her retirement on Tuesday after being arrested four times this month.
Sharif and the military, which plays a powerful behind-the-scenes role in the country’s governance, have condemned violence by Khan’s supporters and pledged to crack down on suspected perpetrators, with the prime minister accusing them of terrorism. Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said on Wednesday that authorities were considering banning the PTI.
Khan, who led a relentless and often vitriolic campaign for immediate elections, and his party also condemned the violence.
On Wednesday, the former prime minister offered to negotiate with the government to find a solution to the crisis – his most significant concession since his dismissal in a vote of no confidence last year. “If they have a solution and [show] that the country will do better without Imran Khan, I am ready to step down,” he said.
The arrests have alarmed international observers, with UN human rights commissioner Volker Türk warning on Wednesday that “the rule of law [is] in great danger”.
Analysts said the crackdown, which they say is orchestrated by the military, is one of the biggest challenges to democracy in Pakistan since its return to civilian rule in 2008 after years of dictatorship.
“The current crackdown is evidence of a slide towards full-fledged authoritarianism,” said Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “The current structure still has a facade of civilian democratic rule through parliament. Whether he will survive the attack remains to be seen. »
He added that the campaign was “led by the military, with the coalition government in Islamabad playing the role of a willing junior partner”.
The Pakistani military and government did not respond to requests for comment.
Khan faces a barrage of legal challenges, including corruption and terrorism allegations, all of which he denies. While many analysts have said he will be the most popular candidate in national elections to be held by October, he could be banned from running if found guilty.
“Before the elections are held, the PTI will be effectively chained,” said Imtiaz Gul, a political commentator in Islamabad. “It is a systematic chaining of the most popular political party.”
Civil society groups have also called on authorities to locate Imran Riaz Khan, a pro-PTI journalist who has been missing since his May 11 arrest.
The Reporters Without Borders campaign group alleged that Khan, who is not linked to the former prime minister, had been “kidnapped” by the military. “The Pakistani authorities will be held directly responsible for any harm inflicted upon him,” the group said in a statement.
A second journalist, Sami Ibrahim, was also reported missing by his family on Thursday.