ISLAMABAD — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused the government of arresting thousands of his party workers, including his social media operators, in recent weeks.
Khan said in a televised speech late Saturday that the whereabouts of many of the detainees was not known, while a few recently freed from custody complained of being subjected to illegal torture.
The cricket-star-turned-prime minister was removed from power last April in a parliamentary no-trust vote, toppling his nearly four-year-old Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led coalition government. Shehbaz Sharif, a rival, replaced Khan as the prime minister of a new multi-party unity government in Islamabad.
Khan alleged in his speech that Sharif's administration had since unleashed a crackdown on PTI supporters and social media operators to stifle free speech after blocking opposition coverage on the country's mainstream news channels.
"Currently, 3,100 of our party workers and social media team members are in jails, mostly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, and in (the capital of) Islamabad," the 70-year-old opposition leader said.
"Every day, the police raid the homes of our supporters and illegally pick them up, spreading fear among people," Khan said. "Nowhere in the world is it possible to round up and abduct such a large number of political workers and put them in jails violating their fundamental rights."
Police have confirmed rounding up hundreds of PTI members for their alleged roles in recent violent clashes between security forces and Khan supporters.
Supporters of Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan carry placards displaying a portrait of Khan during a protest in Karachi, March 19, 2023, demanding the release of party workers arrested in recent police clashes.
Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, responding to Khan’s speech, blamed him for plunging Pakistan into what she described as economic, political, and constitutional crises.” But in a statement her office issued, Aurangzeb did not respond to Khan’s assertions about the police crackdown.
“We will not rest until we salvage the country from a nuisance and rioter like you,” the minister said.
Government officials have defended the arrests, denouncing the PTI as a "gang of miscreants" and even calling for a ban on the party.
Last week, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, in a television interview, made startling remarks against Khan, condemning him as an "incurable enemy" of his ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) party.
Sanaullah told the private online Pakistan News Network, or PNN, channel that Khan "has now taken the country's politics to a point where only one of the two can exist." His remarks fueled the already heated political environment.
The minister stated hat so long as Khan "exists," there would be "no normalcy or political stability" in Pakistan. "If we see our existence is being threatened, we will certainly go to any extent where we will not bother whether a move is principally right or not, democratic or not," Sanaullah said.
Sanaullah, Sharif, and a Pakistani army general have all been named by Khan as responsible for the assassination attempt on him during a protest march last November. A gunman shot Khan multiple times in the leg. The government rejected the charges as frivolous.
Critics say the clampdown on the PTI stems from Khan's growing popularity. A recent Gallup Pakistan opinion poll assessed that his approval ratings spiked to 61% in February from 36% in January last year.
Khan has held massive countrywide rallies since his removal from power, demanding immediate elections in Pakistan. His anti-government campaign has seen the launching of dozens of legal cases against him on charges that include terrorism, sedition, and corruption.
The opposition leader denies the allegations and characterizes them as politically motivated. Khan has repeatedly accused the powerful military of orchestrating his ouster and supporting the ensuing crackdown on his party, saying the legal cases against him are part of efforts to get him disqualified from politics or arrested.
Sharif and his aides reject Khan's comments as "scandalous" and an attempt to avoid accountability, blaming his ousted government for Pakistan's current economic and security challenges.
On Saturday, Amnesty International tweeted its annual report, noting that "grave human rights violations continued" in Pakistan last year.
"The authorities severely curtailed the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, harassing, arresting and detaining critics and political rivals as well as forcibly dispersing protests and assaulting journalists and others," the watchdog said.
It added that Pakistani authorities "further tightened control of the media," and journalists reported "increased coercion, censorship and arrests" of their colleagues.
Meanwhile, Sharif's government is also involved in a dispute with the country's Supreme Court over the holding of provincial elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Khan dissolved his party's governments in the two provinces earlier this year as part of his efforts to force early national polls.
Pakistan's Constitution binds federal authorities to hold the elections in the two provinces within 90 days of the dissolution of national or provincial legislatures. But the election commission moved the Punjab polls from April 30 to October 8, saying the government refused funding and security for the vote.
The controversial move prompted the chief justice to seek a government explanation in response to a PTI-instituted challenge to the decision. Sharif has said the vote should be held in October when national elections in other provinces are due, citing economic and security challenges, arguments legal experts say are unlikely to withstand the court scrutiny. The three-member panel of judges, led by the chief justice, will reconvene Monday for a new hearing.
The lingering political turmoil comes amid a deepening economic crisis in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation of about 232 million people. Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves have sunk to barely enough for four weeks of imports, with consumer price inflation jumping to more than 35%, a record in decades, according to the official Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Higher costs of food and essential commodities have intensified criticism of the government.