Pakistan Supreme Court declares arrest of former PM, Imran Khan, illegal

Pakistani-American supporters of Imran Khan, former Prime Minister, peacefully protest in front of the CNN center in Atlanta, Georgia. // Photo courtesy of Tehreem Hussain Student Publication

On May 9, 2023, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister (PM), Imran Khan was arrested by paramilitary rangers during his appearance before the Islamabad High Court. The former PM’s arrest represents the culmination of a year of political and economic instability in Pakistan’s republic; in April of last year, Khan was forcibly removed from his position as PM due to a successful no-confidence vote in Pakistan’s National Assembly. 

Khan rejects claims of his involvement in over 100 criminal cases which he believes have been constructed against him in a plot by the current government and military leaders to remove Khan from politics and bar him from participating in the country’s general elections. 

Khan’s recent arrest is related to his charitable organization, Al-Qadir Trust, and the alleged corruption charges were sanctioned against him by the National Accountability Bureau, Pakistan’s anti-corruption overseer. Government ministers claim that the Al-Qadir Trust was used as a mirage by Khan to accept corporate bribes. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan alleges that Khan misused the Al-Qadir Trust under the guise of building a university in a deal with property developer Malik Riaz Hussain and allegedly put a $240 million deficit in Pakistan’s national treasury. These claims and those of terrorism and heresy remain unverified and are seen by Khan’s supporters as fabricated offerings to remove Khan from the country’s political playing field. 

Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was founded by the former PM in 1996 and quickly gained public support. In Pakistan’s last general elections held in 2018, PTI won 116 of the 270 National Assembly seats, the most out of any major political party in Pakistan. Current Pakistan PM Shehbaz Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz or PMLN, is a direct opponent of PTI and won 64 out of 270 national seats in 2018. 

PMLN is regarded by the Pakistani masses as a dynastic political party due to the party’s propensity to center familial ties in its governing strategy. Specifically, Nawaz Sharif was first primed by his father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, to succeed Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan’s PM in 1990 and has had two additional stints at the helm since then. Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of Nawaz Sharif, is the current PM of Pakistan, having served as the Chief Minister (CM) of the Punjab province from 2013 to 2018. Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, is the Senior Vice President of PMLN, and Shehbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza Shehbaz, served as the CM of Punjab for a brief period in 2022 before being ousted by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on grounds of constitutionality. 

Thousands of Pakistani civilians have taken to the streets of every major city in the country since Khan’s arrest. These protestors oppose what is known as “the Establishment” in Pakistan and have targeted state buildings, radio towers, army compounds and the private residences of many government and military officials. The Pakistani establishment is composed of the Pakistan Armed Forces, Pakistani intelligence agencies and government officials who have formed close alliances with the country’s military leadership. Pakistan’s army is also implicated in instances of political engineering; since Pakistan’s inception in 1947, the country has been subject to three different military coups, resulting in four military rulers at the forefront of the country’s leadership in 1958, 1977 and 1999. 

In order to crack down on protests, social media services like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were shut down in the country, creating an information blackout. Additionally, more than 1,000 of Khan’s supporters have been arrested and at least eight people have died in the clashes. 

According to a poll published in the Express Tribune, more than 86% of Pakistanis support Khan and PTI. Khan’s popularity among the Pakistani working-class spans multiple continents. The far-reaching Pakistani diaspora consisting of over 7.6 million citizens living overseas have continuously shown their support for Khan since his removal from office last year. While protestors were taking to the streets in Pakistan’s major cities, peaceful demonstrations were also taking place in cities around the world. In Copenhagen, London, Washington D.C. and here in Atlanta, Pakistanis voiced their support for Khan and his party in large numbers. 

On the day of Khan’s arrest, Atlanta’s Pakistani-American community gathered in front of the CNN Center, the news outlet’s international headquarters housed in the heart of Downtown Atlanta. The peaceful protest featured chants synonymous with PTI’s primary message of holding the Pakistani establishment accountable, with many demonstrators offering speeches in both Urdu and English. The primary sentiment of this protest revolved around the demands of immediate free and fair elections in Pakistan and the release of Khan from custody on the grounds that his arrest was a state abduction. 

Dr. Hamza Sheikh, an Atlanta based endocrinologist, was one of many Pakistani-American physicians present at the protest. Explaining the motivation behind the protest, Sheikh said, “the Pakistani-American community of Atlanta is gathered at the CNN headquarters to protest Imran Khan’s illegal abduction and raise our voices against the crimes and human rights violations committed by the current corrupt government of Pakistan. It is a good turnout as people from all walks of life and different age groups are present.” 

Tech’s campus also houses a vibrant community of Pakistani students. The Pakistani Student Association (PSA) at the Institute holds programming and organizes events during the academic year to unite the Pakistani community on campus. Hasan Zulfiqar, fourth-year IE, is the current president of the PSA and spoke to the Technique in a representative capacity about the current political situation in Pakistan. 

“The arrest of a democratically elected leader can be seen as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process. It creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among the general public, which results in lawlessness. The history of Pakistan shows this could possibly lead to military intervention, which will then result in the curtailment of the basic freedoms and rights of the public,” said Zulfiqar. 

Similarly, the vice president of PSA Rameez Raoof, second-year BME, said, “regardless of the debate of whether this is a targeted political move, the hours following the arrest of Imran Khan have seen a drop in currency value and a spike in riots and attacks on military installations, both of which are already large problems that have a history of threatening the stability of Pakistan.”

Raoof’s concerns regarding the country’s economic situation is echoed by Pakistani citizens facing the brunt of the domestic political instability that has resulted in the fastest rising inflation in Asia, with steeply elevated food and energy costs. Overseas, Pakistanis have threatened to halt remittances sent to the country via official channels that accumulate to billions of dollars annually if their demands of immediate elections are not met. 

Since the Pakistan National Assembly was dissolved by President Arif Alvi in 2022 prior to Khan’s removal from office, the Pakistani Constitution in its Article 224(2) mandates that a general election must be held within 90 days after the dissolution. Over a year has passed since the incident with no general elections taking place, furthering the mistrust between the general public and the country’s military. 

On May 11, 2023, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered Khan’s release, deeming the arrest illegal. However, most of PTI’s leaders have also been taken into custody and many are skeptical of the outcomes of the Supreme Court’s ruling due to Pakistan’s judicial system holding little more than symbolic power in the country’s current political state. Moeed Pirzada, a Pakistani-British political commentator, posted on Twitter following the court’s announcement and said, “is this a cosmetic measure to create [the] impression that courts exist? To send crowds back to [their] home[s] and then arrest [Khan] through Islamabad High Court again?” 

With the quickly changing political situation in the country, only time will tell whether Khan’s release will be a point of celebration for PTI supporters and whether the delayed general elections will actually be held in the upcoming weeks.