Lock Him Up
He is being watched, even when he uses the toilet. Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan is currently being held in a small dark room in Attock Jail. The prison, built by the British in the early 1900s, is abutted by a fort that also houses prisoners. It sits in the town of Attock, located at the confluence of two major rivers, the Indus and the Kabul. Alexander the Great is believed to have camped here, and the town is mentioned in travel records that are centuries old.
None of that historical significance can provide much solace to Imran Khan. Last week, a judge who visited Khan’s cell, after his team filed a complaint, released a report that confirmed that the condition of his cell is indeed dismal and a violation of the prison’s own rules for political prisoners. Despite the judge’s report, the CCTV camera installed over his shower and toilet continues to remain operational and, unlike other political prisoners, Khan has not been permitted to eat food sent from his own home. His wife, Bushra Bibi, is worried about the risk of poisoning.
Those, of course, are merely the physical encumbrances on the former prime minister. Since he was removed from office, nearly 150 cases have been filed against other leaders of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Justice Movement, or PTI) party. Khan himself faces thirty-four cases that range from contempt of court to terrorism. His current sentence for just one of these, the “Toshakhana case,” is three years. This case, which moved quickly through Pakistan’s otherwise achingly slow justice system, found Khan guilty of failing to report gifts he received from heads of state. Khan admitted to this particular charge, and furthermore, he had sold these gifts, which included a Graff watch, a pair of cufflinks, four Rolex watches, and a ring.
But nothing in Pakistan is ever over when it seems to be over. Khan’s team has filed appeals against the verdict, the imposed sentence of three years, and the disqualification from ever holding any public office. On Wednesday of this week, Umar Ata Bandial, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, hinted at the possibility of Khan’s release in his statement that there might be problems with the lower court’s verdict, as the court did not give Khan the opportunity to be heard. Bandial, who has one month left in his term as chief justice, and thus is arguably less vulnerable to being cowed, has the power to make at least the Toshakhana case go away.
Amid speculation that Khan could be released, there is also doubt over whether he would be free for long: there are those other thirty-four cases, and according to an ABC News report, “his release is unlikely as other courts have canceled his bail in multiple cases.” Of course, this practice of imprisoning political opponents is almost a tradition in Pakistan. Shahbaz Sharif, the prime minister who led the government that was put in place when Khan was removed, has been imprisoned, as have various members of his family. Former President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, also spent years in the same Attock Jail where Khan is currently confined. So commonplace is this tactic that it is difficult to assess which cases are real and which are trumped up.
But there are a few unique aspects to Imran Khan’s predicament. The first is the overwhelming support that Khan commands from Pakistanis within the country and abroad. When he first came into power, many Pakistanis living overseas quit their jobs and lives and returned to be a part of the “new Pakistan” that Khan had promised. In numerous instances, thousands have taken to the streets to listen to his speeches and to protest the many crackdowns that have been imposed on the party by Pakistan’s all-powerful military that had originally championed Khan.
In May of this year, PTI supporters took to the streets and targeted military installations all over the country in protest of its role in arranging Khan’s ouster as prime minister. Since then, thousands of Khan’s party workers and leaders were thrown in jail. Journalists who were sympathetic have been similarly targeted and foreign commentators making statements from outside the country have been charged with sedition. Currently, television journalists have been instructed not to mention Khan’s name on air, making it difficult for many to report on the issue. This has led to human rights groups, and even some politicians, questioning the justice of arresting ordinary PTI supporters while the architects of the removal of Khan, the Pakistani military, are left untouched.
The scale of the crackdown against PTI and the frenzy to ensure that Khan cannot contest elections which were supposed to be held this year may point to real anxiety in the ranks of the military as it goes head-to-head with a populist leader. The fate of elections themselves is currently unknown, with no date announced even though the caretaker government whose job it is to oversee elections is already in place. If elections are held it is likely that Khan’s party will win in a landslide even with Khan out of the race.
The second factor that distinguishes Khan’s plight from his predecessors is the role of the United States in his removal from office. For a year and a half, Khan had alleged that he had read a cable (known as a cypher) that detailed a meeting between the Pakistani ambassador to the United States and two state department officials. The cable, whose contents were recently published by The Intercept, shows support for the removal of Khan because he had taken a neutral position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One month later, Khan was removed from office and the more U.S.-friendly Shahbaz Sharif was installed in his place.
The recovery of the cable and its contents is a huge windfall for Khan and his party. American meddling is detested with great ferocity in Pakistan and a substantiated account, such as the one in the cypher, has the potential to delegitimize any legal proceedings or political contestation Khan will face in the future. Such is the anti-American sentiment in post- War on Terror Pakistan that even those who detest Khan and his politics may turn into Khan supporters owing to their anti-American views. In contrast, the Pakistani military comes out looking like an American lackey eager to act at the behest of American overlords.
There is no small irony in the fact that the United States is facing its own deterioration of democratic processes even as it attempts to bolster Pakistan’s military in the name of stability. The indictments of former president Donald Trump on a number of charges, though they are more legally credible than the charges against Imran Khan, may carry some of the same risks to the American political and judicial system. The May 9 riots in which PTI supporters targeted military installations can be likened to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. In both cases, a leader is fomenting widespread belief that the “rule of law” has been corrupted. These similarities are important to note because they suggest that there may be a contagion effect to democratic devolution. In Pakistan, the arrests and punishment of political rivals by submerging them in various criminal cases is near routine and is almost an expected part of transitions of power. The involvement of the judicial branch in adjudicating these cases and imposing sentences has only reduced public confidence in the neutrality or ethics of judicial institutions. The United States has a much stronger judicial system, but already there is a sizeable part of the Republican Right that simultaneously rejects all legal cases against Donald Trump while calling for the prosecution of Hunter Biden and the impeachment of President Joe Biden. Such political power struggles present the risk of delegitimizing the judicial branch in much the same manner as it has in Pakistan. The truth about corruption becomes not what is factually correct and proven in a legitimate court of law, but a political choice that comes with an ideological worldview attached.
In Pakistan, the political drama is taking place against a disastrous economic crisis that only became worse after Khan’s Government was dissolved. In just the past few months inflation has risen to an all-time high of 36.5 percent in May. The prices of staples like milk, flour, and sugar have skyrocketed and the rupee has plummeted against the dollar. The IMF has stepped in to make a loan of just over $3 billion to prevent Pakistan from defaulting on existing debt payments. Even if Imran Khan is released, the cases against him cleared, and elections are held it is questionable whether he would be able to extricate Pakistan from the deep fiscal hell of too much debt. While recovering the sovereignty of a struggling country may make for an attractive political slogan, it ignores Pakistan’s grim reality. The real roadblock may not be the eroded institutions that are easily corrupted, or even the Pakistani military, but the fact that no Pakistani politician has come up with a workable scheme of repaying the billions Pakistan owes. Resisting American interventions is popular but impossible if Pakistan is so indebted to the IMF, whose largest funder is none other than the United States.
Even with all these constraints, the United States should not encourage a crackdown on innocent political activists and leaders of PTI. The imprisonment of populist political leaders hands them the dramatic scenery of heroism borne of persecution. Each time former Prime Minister Imran Khan opines about the dismal conditions of his imprisonment, the more exalted he becomes for his followers. It is not surprising that in a world with very few good men, millions of Pakistanis believe they have found one.