State crackdown and the way ahead for Pakistan

By Abdullah Zahid 

On May 9, a dramatic turn unfolded in the ongoing political saga of Pakistan as paramilitary forces stormed into the Islamabad High Court, disrupting the biometric verification process of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan.

This process was related to a case concerning his critical remarks against certain intelligence officers.

A battalion of armed personnel in riot gear dragged Khan into a waiting vehicle and drove off. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) supporters erupted into the streets in protest at the Pakistan Rangers’ highhandedness against their leader. Violent mobs, some led by women, also stormed army garrisons and residences.

It later emerged that Khan had been ‘arrested’ under the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Ordinance 1999 for taking millions in dollars in bribes from property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain in a land allotment case. The Supreme Court later declared Khan’s arrest “unlawful”.

After his release and the order of a protective bail for the next two weeks, Imran Khan confronted Pakistan’s powerful military head-on, saying: “I doubt there is any sense in the Army Chief right now because he’s so petrified if I win the elections I’ll denotify him… he’s dismantling the future of this country to protect himself.”

The ensuing protests resulted in injuries, damage to public property, and loss of lives. The Islamabad police estimate that the damage caused to public property has cost the national exchequer over $872,000. Moreover, the clashes have led to the loss of at least eight lives and hundreds injured.

Widespread protests

These were unprecedented mass protests and the PTI’s mode of dissent shook the nation. The rioters ransacked and set ablaze the Corps Commander House in Lahore, a highly fortified bastion of historical significance. They stole items such as a golf kit, frozen strawberries, and even pet peacocks, claiming these to be their ‘right’ as taxpayers.

A viral video showed a woman vigorously shaking the main door of the Army headquarters while other protesters stormed inside armed with sticks. A Pakistan Air Force base was also among the properties set ablaze.

The state came down hard on the protestors, including women. At Lahore’s Liberty Chowk, a police officer grabbed a female protester by the hair and dragged her away after she threw her dupatta (scarf) at him. The scene was captured in a video shared on social media.

Another video showed an officer dragging a woman on the ground after she refused to vacate the area. Scores of male officers barged into PTI leader Usman Dar’s house in the early hours and harassed his mother.

Hours after the ISPR’s initial statement, the police carried out a sweeping crackdown and rounded up over 200 party leaders, including various high-profile figures. Those hauled up included former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, former finance minister Asad Umar, former information minister Fawad Chaudhry, former minister of human rights Shireen Mazari, and former minister of Maritime affairs Ali Zaidi.

The arrested leaders were booked under the draconian Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance (MPO) introduced by military dictator Gen. Ayub Khan in 1960. They can be detained for three months without legal redress.

Khan has been demanding early elections since his Constitutional ouster last April which many suspect of being engineered by the military. He even managed to dissolve two provincial assemblies, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to generate pressure for elections.

However, despite orders from the Chief Justice of Pakistan and the Constitutional requirement to hold elections in 90 days, the Election Commission of Pakistan failed to hold elections in both provinces. The government says they are waiting for financial stability before incurring the high cost of polls.

As rumors about impending martial law circulate, the army says this option is not on the table. “The army chief and army’s senior leadership are committed to upholding the continuity of democracy,” the army’s spokesperson told Geo TV.

However, observers believe that despite the change of guard at the army’s top level – the retirement of Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and the appointment of Gen. Asim Munir – the military’s institutional mentality and tactics remain unchanged.

“Civilian governments are just faces that keep changing; the real power holders are the same,” says journalist Hasan Ali of The Nation. Talking to Sapan News over the phone recently, he called the army “an institution that operates with complete impunity.”

Ali was among those picked up by the police in the midst of the “revolutionary” protests in Rawalpindi. A Punjab police officer brandished a pistol at him and ordered Ali to follow him towards General Headquarters (GHQ).

Ali could reach out to his family using a small phone hidden on his person, which he used to text his parents. After securing his release, Ali returned with a lawyer for the others, but they were missing.

Digital ban

Within hours of Imran Khan’s arrest, the government blocked Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube “indefinitely” in an attempt to combat “lies and propaganda” being spewed on social media by Khan’s party.

Such censorship is not new in Pakistan. From military dictators like Gen. Zia-ul Haq and, most recently Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to elected dispensations, successive governments have censored or banned organizations, individuals, parties, and media. A notable example is the 2012 ban on YouTube which lasted for three years after the platform refused to comply with the government’s request to remove ‘objectionable’ content.

The ban made it more difficult for the media to provide timely and accurate coverage. In today’s digital age, for many, earning a livelihood is now directly tied to social media and internet access. The ban heavily impacted delivery and transport services that rely on the internet to take orders and market themselves, such as ride-hailing and food-delivery companies.

Determined social-media users circumvented the Internet ban by using VPN services to access restricted platforms. Data from Top10VPN, a website that reviews and rates VPN services, shows a significant increase in demand on May 9-11, skyrocketing to over a thousand percent (1,329%) compared to the preceding 28-day daily average, which the research does not mention.

According to the estimates of Netblocks, an organization that monitors internet connectivity worldwide, the country faces a staggering loss of $53 million per day due to the ban on internet services.

Now, with their leader ousted, Imran Khan’s supporters are expressing their rage not politically but through violence and vandalism. The state’s response to try them through military courts will only worsen the situation. Whether or not this episode will feed into the democratic political process or further entrench the military in power behind the scenes, only time will tell.

(Courtesy: Sapan News)


Abdullah Zahid is an aspiring journalist studying mass communication at the University of Karachi. Twitter:@AbdullahZahid

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

Image courtesy of ABC

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