Violence and and an equally violent and repressive push back from the Pakistan government have marked the weeks following former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s dramatic arrest on May 9.

The protests by supporters and members of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf left hundreds wounded, damaged public property and claimed at least 10 lives. Journalists, too, faced violence and harassment from the police.

The Islamabad police estimate that the damage caused to public property has cost the national exchequer over $872,000. A three-day ban on social media aimed at stifling the spread of misinformation led to financial losses.

Imran Khan’s dramatic arrest, protests

On May 9, as Khan was at the Islamabad High Court for biometric verification, paramilitary forces stormed into the premises to arrest the former prime minister. A battalion of armed personnel in riot gear dragged Khan into a waiting vehicle and drove off. They also smashed windows and assaulted his lawyer. This process was related to a case concerning his critical remarks against some intelligence officers.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters erupted in protest at the Pakistan Rangers’ high-handedness. Violent mobs, some led by women, stormed army garrisons and residences.

It later emerged that Khan had been “arrested” under the National Accountability Bureau Ordinance, 1999, for taking millions in dollars as a bribe from property tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain in a land allotment case.

Pakistan is no stranger to mass public protests but the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s anger shook the country. Rioters ransacked and set ablaze the Corps Commander House in Lahore, a highly fortified bastion of historical significance. Viral videos showed protestors stealing items such as a golf kit, frozen strawberries, salad, a bowl of korma, and even pet peacocks, claiming these to be their “right” as taxpayers.

Yet another video showed a woman rattling the gate of the Army headquarters while other protesters stormed into the premises armed with sticks. Dummy aircraft outside a Pakistan Air Force base was also set ablaze.

Other targets of vandalism and arson included public buses, an ambulance belonging to the humanitarian Edhi Foundation, and police vans. In the north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a school was torched and the state-owned Radio Pakistan building in Peshawar.

Crackdown and arrests

The Army’s Inter Services Public Relations termed May 9 a “dark chapter” in the country’s history and said Khan’s supporters had achieved in a day what Pakistan’s “arch-enemy” couldn’t accomplish in 75 years – a veiled reference to India.

On why the protestors had been able to vandalise not just public and civil property but also guarded military premises, the Inter Services Public Relations said the Army had, “without caring about its own reputation”, worked with “extreme patience and endurance in the wider interest of the country”. It lauded the Army for showing “extreme patience, tolerance, and restraint.”

Hours later, the police carried out a sweeping crackdown and rounded up more than 200 leaders of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Among those arrested were 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, introduced by military dictator General Ayub Khan in 1960. Those arrested could be detained for up to three months without legal redress.

The Pakistan government cracked down on the protestors as well, including women. Videos showed a police officer grabbing a female protester by the hair and dragging her away after she threw her scarf at him at Lahore’s Liberty Chowk. Another video showed an officer dragging, as she lay on the ground, after she refused to vacate the spot. According to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, scores of male officers barged into party leader Usman Dar’s house early on May 10 and harassed his mother.

People shower rose petals on Army soldiers to show solidarity with Pakistan's Armed Forces, on May 20 in Peshawar. Credit: Reuters.

Journalist Hasan Ali of The Nation, a news website, was also among those picked up by the police amid protests in Rawalpindi on May 9. In an account published in The Nation, Ali described how a Punjab police officer brandished a pistol at him and ordered him to follow the officer to the General Headquarters.

“I complied, and after walking a brief distance, a man in plainclothes grabbed me and started dragging me, ripping my shirt,” Ali told Sapan News over the phone.

He said the policeman took him to a group of security personnel of the Punjab police and policemen in plain clothes: “One hit me on the right side of my head with a stick,” he said.

An officer in ordinary clothes put Ali into the police van and took him to the nearest police station. When Ali asked for an explanation, the officer said he had seen him chanting slogans. Ali denied these allegations.

At the police station, Ali showed his press credentials to the inspecting officer. Instead, Ali was told, “Did I bring you here? Neither do I have the authority to release you.”

Ali and four others who were detained were taken to the top floor of the police station, their phones confiscated, and locked up. Ali used a small phone hidden on his person to text his parents. After securing his release, Ali returned with a lawyer for the others, but they were missing.

Social media, internet ban

Within hours of Khan’s arrest, the government had also blocked Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube “indefinitely” in an attempt to combat the “lies and propaganda” being spread on social media by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

From military dictators like General Zia-ul Haq and most General Pervez Musharraf, to elected dispensations, successive governments have frequently censored or banned organisations, individuals, parties, and media. A notable example is the 2012 ban on YouTube that lasted three years after the platform refused to comply with the government’s request to remove “objectionable” content.

Around May 12, the country’s telecom authority said it had began restoring internet services while social media access was restored a week or so after Khan’s arrest. But the blackout had made it difficult for the media to provide timely and accurate coverage. It also had far-reaching consequences beyond limiting access to information. The country’s gig industry, the fourth largest in the world, suffered a loss of $2 million per day.

The ban affected delivery and transport services that rely on the internet, such as ride-hailing and food-delivery companies.

Some determined social media users circumvented the ban by using virtual private network, or VPN, services to access restricted platforms. Data from Top10VPN, a website that reviews and rates VPN services, shows a significant increase in demand between May 9-11.

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

Security officers escort Imran Khan, as he appeared in the Islamabad High Court on May 12. Credit: Reuters.

What lies ahead

On May 19, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that Khan’s arrest was “unlawful”. Following his release and the order of a protective bail for the next two weeks, Khan confronted Pakistan’s powerful military. “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,” said Khan. “He’s dismantling the future of this country to protect himself.”

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

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

The Army has dismissed rumours of impending martial rule. “The army chief and army’s senior leadership are committed to upholding the continuity of democracy,” a spokesperson told Geo TV.

However, observers believe that despite the change of guard at the Army’s top level – the retirement of Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the appointment of General 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,” said Ali of The Nation. The army is “an institution that operates with complete impunity”, he said.

Since Pakistan’s formation 75 years ago, it has been the “establishment” that has largely determined who gains political power and when it can be taken away. Out-of-favour politicians have been disqualified from political office, imprisoned, or exiled. Some have been killed.

The state’s response to try Khan’s supporters through military courts will only worsen the situation. Whether or not this will feed into the democratic political process or further entrench the military in power, only time will tell.

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

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.