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Will Pak military stay united after Imran Khan’s dramatic arrest?

Imran Khan's arrest has put Pakistan on edge

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested from the premises of Islamabad High Court on May 09 afternoon by a team of Pakistan Rangers called in by the Islamabad Inspector General of Police, Dr. Akbar Nazir Khan to help execute a warrant of arrest issued by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

The offence

458 kanals of land in Mouza Bakrala, Tehsil Sohawa, Jhelum district and 240 kanals in Bani Gala, Islamabad ( in the name of absconding business lady associate, Farah Gogi) were gifted by notorious property dealer, Malik Riaz to Imran, ostensibly for setting up a university in the name of  the Al Qadir Trust, of which both Imran and his wife, Bushra Bibi are the only trustees.

Malik Riaz had sold a property in Britain (obtained ironically, after its purchase from the son of Nawaz Sharif). The National Crimes Office (NCA, UK) had frozen these funds. Later, after an out of court settlement, Pounds 190 mn were released for refund to Government of Pakistan. Part of this money was adjusted in the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s account, against Malik Riaz’s dues. The balance was apparently set off, in violation of money laundering laws, for these land grants to Imran’s family and friends. These transactions happened in 2019, when Imran was PM.

Imran and his wife, Bushra Bibi have now been charged for corrupt practices by a holder of public office, under Sec 9 of the NAB Ordinance, 1999.

NAB energized

The noose had been tightening against the former PM, slowly but surely, even as he kept taking advantage of an openly partial and benevolent judiciary, turning a blind eye to his repeated avoidance of indictment proceedings, and getting anticipatory bail in several cases.

Soon after Gen (rtd) Nazir Ahmed Butt’s appointment as Chairman, NAB in March, 2023, inquiries into this foreign money trail into Pakistan gathered momentum. The NAB had summoned Imran and Bushra Bibi in this case. After they avoided appearing, a warrant was issued. On appeal, the Islamabad High Court ruled the NAB warrant illegal on minor procedural grounds a few days back. This arrest has ensued on a fresh NAB warrant, on May 01. No bail had been obtained against this one by Imran’s legal team.

Red Line crossed

Imran Khan crossed a red line again during his Lahore public meeting a few days ago, accusing DG, Counter Intelligence (DG-C) in the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Maj Gen Faisal Naseer of plotting to kill him. This statement elicited an angry response from the DG, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), Maj Gen Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry.

ISPR Press Release, May 08

The ISPR’s press release No. PR-55/2023-ISPR of May 08 accused Imran of leveling “highly irresponsible and baseless allegations against a serving senior military officer without any evidence. These fabricated and malicious allegations are extremely unfortunate, deplorable and unacceptable.” It emphasized, “this has been a consistent pattern (of Imran and other PTI leaders) for last one year wherein military and intelligence agencies officials are targeted with insinuations and sensational propaganda for the furtherance of political objectives.”

Spontaneous protests nationwide

Soon after Imran’s arrest, Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf (PTI) cadres resorted to slogan shouting, arson and violence, holding protest demonstrations in Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi and other cities. Some unruly protestors breached the perimeters of an untenanted guest wing in the Lahore Corps Commander’s residential compound, looting and burning property there.

PTI supporters, including women gathered outside and broke through the gates of the General Headquarters cantonment boundary fencing in Rawalpindi, the second time this has happened after the TTP attack in October, 2009. Two PTI protestors in Faislabad and one at Askari checkpoint in Quetta were killed in police firings. Demonstrators tried to attack the Mianwali and Sargodha air bases as well as Multan and Gujranwala cantonments. A pillar at Chaghi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, commemorating Pakistan’s nuclear explosions of 1998 was damaged. These uprisings, though small so far, have been rather unprecedented, especially as the direction of their ire seemed focused singularly against the military establishment.

Judiciary’s response

Chief Justice Amir Farooq of Islamabad High Court (CJI) questioned the manner of Imran’s arrest on Court premises, asking IGP Islamabad and Federal Interior Secretary to appear before him. Sardar Muzaffar Abbasi, Deputy Prosecutor General of NAB explained the circumstances of issue of the warrant of arrest. The CJI initially reserved his verdict but later at night, issued a short order, deeming the arrest legal.

Imran Khan is likely to be produced on remand before a NAB Court in Islamabad on May 10, when indictment in the Toshakhana case is also to be taken up in the court of Additional Sessions Judge, Islamabad.

Prospect of Martial Law ?

Prohibitory orders under Sec 144 CrPC have been imposed in Punjab and several other cities elsewhere. Internet connectivity has been temporarily restricted and curbs on social media trollers may intensify. The violence which erupted spontaneously due to Imran’s popularity may peter out over the next few days. If they do not, a more serious crackdown on PTI supporters under close to martial law conditions cannot be ruled out. It may not be formally promulgated, for fear of attracting international financial sanctions.

Elections & Doctrine of Necessity ?

Even as the protests are tackled more firmly by law and order authorities in days to come, Imran Khan is likely to face a long incarceration and multiple remands. His disqualification, preventing participation in future elections may follow, even as the Judiciary gets the message and decides, as in the past, to throw in its cudgels of independence and conform to the doctrine of necessity.

In this backdrop, though much bravado has attached to Supreme Court Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial’s assertion that his order of elections in Punjab on May 14 still stands, elections to national or provincial assemblies remain a far cry. If all goes smoothly in law-and-order terms, they could still be held in October, 2023 but the current surcharged atmosphere suggests to the contrary.

CJ Bandial is yet to be tamed though, even as his retirement looms in four months, on September 16. Another PTI acolyte, President Arif Alvi has remained quiet so far. He too is slated to fade out on completion of his five-year term, on September 09.

PTI’s future?

In Imran’s absence, it may be difficult for any second stream leader of PTI to carry forward the populist momentum. Pervez Elahi, appointed President of the party recently, over the heads of other senior leaders like Pervez Khattak, Shah Mehmood Qureshi (SMQ), has never been known to confront the military establishment. A battle for succession to Imran’s mantle may ensue. Meanwhile, a six-member PTI committee has been formed, under SMQ, to decide the future course of action and try to stave off an imminent ban on the party in the foreseeable future.

Army & the Imran genie

The above scenario could unravel only if dissensions within the Army intensify. Reports in this regard may have been exaggerated by observers sympathetic to Imran. The ISPR notification of May 08 constituted a clear warning, backed by the collegiate leadership of senior generals who have rallied behind the new Chief, Gen Asim Munir. Unconfirmed media reports suggest, former DG, ISI, Lt. Gen (r) Faiz Hameed is under informal house arrest, former Chief Gen (r) Bajwa has been told to cut down his interactions with the media. Other retired Generals like Zahir ul Islam, Shuja Pasha and Naeem Lodhi, who rallied to Imran’s side in the recent past, may be under similar close watch.

History suggests revolts from within or coup attempts against the Army Chief from below have never succeeded in Pakistan. Only time will tell if promotion of a protégé like Imran in the 2018 `hybrid construct’ will return to bite the omnipotent `saviors’ this time.

Also Read:  Pak military takes risky gamble with Imran Khan’s arrest

(Rana Banerji was Special Secretary (Retd.) in the Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)