Droves of Imran Khan’s Allies Defect as Military Ramps Up Crackdown


Numerous followers of former Prime Minister Imran Khan have been apprehended, while media columnists known for their sympathy towards him have faced intimidation. Significant allies have stepped down from his party, citing threats of criminal charges and arrests.

Amid escalating political tensions between Mr. Khan and the Pakistani government, which have led to violent protests across the country, the influential military has initiated a disturbing campaign against Khan’s supporters. The objective is to undermine his political party in preparation for the upcoming general elections later this year.

The pressure campaign has begun to chip away at Mr. Khan’s momentum, analysts say — the military’s most forceful effort yet to disempower the former leader who was removed from office last year.

It’s the latest move in the Pakistani military’s standard playbook to sideline politicians who have fallen out of its favor and preserve its iron hold on the country’s politics. It also underscores how the cricket star-turned-populist-politician has become the target of the very tactics that helped bring him to power in 2018, when the military cleared the field of his rivals and paved the way for his election.

Since his ouster last year, Mr. Khan has railed at the generals — a confrontation that has caused the most severe political crisis in Pakistan in over a decade.

In recent weeks, more than 100 senior and midlevel party officials, including two former chief ministers, a former governor and several former cabinet ministers, have left his party, known as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I.

Almost every day, P.T.I. members make appearances across the country to announce their resignations from the party, declare their backing for Pakistan’s military and reject Mr. Khan’s conflict with the top brass.

“The Pakistani Army is yet again engaged in political engineering by forcing resignations from Khan’s party and steering together new political forces,” said Arif Rafiq, a political analyst. “The primary aim here is to remove Khan from the political process, as he’s no longer reliably obedient and has amassed popular support that gives him political capital independent of the military.”

While observers caution that Mr. Khan should not be written out of politics quite yet, the sudden and widespread defections are a stunning turnabout for Mr. Khan, who had demonstrated an ability to counter the military’s influence after being ousted from office in a vote of no confidence last year. He drew thousands to rallies and found support in the court system, which has granted him bail in the many cases that prosecutors have recently brought against him.

The tipping point seemed to come after Mr. Khan was arrested by authorities May 9 on corruption charges. Hundreds of his supporters stormed military installations, setting some alight and looting others, in scenes once unimaginable in a country where few dare defy the military establishment, which has ruled Pakistan directly for around half its 75-year history and has pulled the strings of politics under civilian governments.

The military responded to the protests in force.

“Currently, the law is taking its course, and arsonists and rioters are being identified and arrested,” Marriyum Aurangzeb, the Pakistani information minister, said in an interview.

Many party leaders are now in hiding and have complained that their relatives are being harassed and hounded by the police.

Hammad Azhar, a former cabinet minister and current member of P.T.I., said the police raided his sisters’ houses in the eastern city of Lahore several times and briefly detained his father, also a veteran politician. He is now in hiding. Mr. Azhar also said that the authorities have tried to shut down his family-owned steel business.

The crackdown is not limited to senior party officials. Last month, the government announced that around 30 protesters charged with attacking military installations during the May 9 protests would be tried in military, not civilian, courts. The move drew widespread condemnation from human rights groups as a violation of international law. Two journalists have also been charged with treason and accused of instigating the protesters to attack military buildings.

Thousands of demonstrators have also been charged under laws prohibiting rioting and threats to public order. Other P.T.I. supporters have complained of the police’s oppressive hand.

Muhammad, a 31-year-old university student and a supporter of Mr. Khan, joined major protests in Karachi after Mr. Khan was arrested in May. Now, he says, he is hiding after his home was raided three times by the police. His father and older brother have also been detained for questioning. He asked to be identified by only his first name for fear of retribution from the government.

Karachi police officials did not respond to requests for comment about his case. The Pakistani military has denied accusations of human rights violations.

Allies of Mr. Khan have also claimed that the military has resorted to disappearing P.T.I. supporters, or holding them incommunicado without charges, a tactic Pakistan’s security forces have been accused of in years past.

In one high-profile case, a journalist and political commentator considered sympathetic to Mr. Khan has been missing since May 11, when a video circulated on social media showing him being escorted out of the Sialkot International Airport in eastern Pakistan by a group of police officers. The family of the journalist, Imran Riaz Khan, say they have not heard from him since and suspect that he is still in custody. Security officials deny that and say he was released.

The military’s crackdown on P.T.I. members echoes the tactics it used to fuel Mr. Khan’s rise to power in 2018.

Before those elections, politicians who had fallen out of favor with the military were slapped with corruption charges. Major news outlets were shackled. Journalists critical of the crackdown were abducted and threatened into silence.

Now, with top officials from Mr. Khan’s party defecting in droves, some analysts are already writing off Mr. Khan’s electoral prospects.

Although Mr. Khan has retained popular support among the masses, political parties in Pakistan need strong individual candidates to win seats in Parliament. The string of defections mean Mr. Khan has lost his party’s key electable candidates, analysts say, which will make it more difficult for him to parlay his street power into victories in the general elections scheduled for October.

Many P.T.I. defectors have joined a new political party led by Jahangir Tareen, a wealthy businessman and politician known for his alliance-making skills. Once a close confidant of Mr. Khan, Mr. Tareen announced the new party, Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party, last week at a news conference as he was flanked by several high-profile former allies of Mr. Khan.

“It is not even clear if Imran Khan would be qualified to contest the elections,” said Raza Rumi, a political commentator. “His return to power now seems almost impossible.”


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