Pakistan’s army vowed to avoid politics. Now it’s back in the middle.

·5-min read

Days after former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s sudden arrest unleashed a firestorm of anger and plunged several cities into chaos, Pakistan may have a chance to catch its breath.

In an unexpected decision Friday, the Islamabad High Court granted Mr. Khan bail and barred his arrest in other registered cases until after the weekend. This comes after supporters took to the streets in a series of violent protests that have targeted both government buildings and military property.

The demonstrations have led to at least eight deaths and thousands of arrests, with some detainees being held illegally without charge. In many places, troops have been deployed to quell the unrest, and services like Twitter and Google have been blocked to stop protesters from mobilizing.

Mr. Khan’s release may help slow the growing protests, say experts, but will likely do little to reverse the damage to the reputation of Pakistan’s most powerful institutions.

Indeed, this week marks an unprecedented escalation in the showdown between Mr. Khan and the Pakistani military, which has ruled the country from the shadows for decades but vowed late last year to end its political meddling.

Critics say the politician’s arrest at the hands of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) – a watchdog granted wide-ranging powers by the army and currently headed by a retired three-star general – reflects poorly on that promise.

“The National Accountability Bureau is vested with several draconian powers that it really shouldn’t be vested with,” says Abdul Moiz Jaferii, a Karachi-based lawyer. “It should have been declared unconstitutional a long time ago, but hasn’t because it has always been the favorite tool of the military establishment to engineer politics with.”

Anti-corruption watchdog or army’s clean-up crew?

The charges against Mr. Khan relate to a corruption case in which the NAB has accused him of reaching a quid pro quo arrangement with billionaire real estate developer Malik Riaz, ultimately depriving the exchequer of more than $230 million. In return for the prime minister’s help, the NAB alleges, Mr. Riaz gifted 57 acres of valuable land to a trust registered in the names of Mr. Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi. Mr. Khan and his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), deny the allegations.

“It is a solid case to answer because there’s been a favor extended to Malik Riaz unduly, which allowed him to effectively pocket money” bound for the state treasury, says Mr. Jaferii.

Merits of the case notwithstanding, Mr. Khan’s arrest has brought heightened scrutiny of Pakistan’s most influential institutions.

Pakistan has had six different prime ministers since 2008. Every one of them has been prosecuted by the NAB. Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who preceded Mr. Khan, argues that the organization’s influence has rendered the country ungovernable.

“Under the rules of business, the principal accounting officer of a ministry is not the minister but the secretary [the most senior civil servant in a government department]. To get to a politician, they have to accuse the secretary of corruption,” he explains. “So what they [NAB officers] do is they give the secretary two choices: You can either become an accused and go to jail, or you can become a witness against the minister.”

According to Mr. Abbasi, this fear of persecution has impacted the day-to-day governance of Pakistan. “Whatever work [bureaucrats] do, they take the path of least resistance, and you don’t get optimal decisions,” he says.

The events of the last few days have only added to the sense of polarization in Pakistani society. The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday to declare Mr. Khan’s arrest illegal was chastised by the government, with Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif accusing the superior judiciary of bias toward Mr. Khan.

“The judiciary has become like an iron shield for Imran Khan,” he is reported to have said in a cabinet meeting Thursday.

It is the integrity of the armed forces, however, that has been questioned most bitterly.

Military under fire

For decades the sacred cow in Pakistani politics, the army has suffered a heavy blow to its prestige just eight months after its outgoing chief gave a commitment that it would henceforth remain within its constitutional limits.

A day before his arrest, Mr. Khan accused two-star general and Inter-Services Intelligence officer Faisal Naseer, by name, of plotting to have him killed, a statement that experts say crossed an unspoken red line. These allegations, along with the seemingly retributive timing of Mr. Khan’s arrest, incited some of Mr. Khan’s supporters to target military installations. Altogether, these amounted to an unprecedented week of attacks against Pakistan’s “establishment.”

“There is a rage among people about what has been happening over the last year, not only politically, but also economically,” says former PTI minister Shireen Mazari. “And everybody knows that the real power behind decision-making since the ouster of the PTI government has been the military, so the anger was directed at the military and not at the ... government.”

At around 2 a.m. on Friday, some six hours after speaking to the Monitor, Dr. Mazari was arrested by police at her residence in Islamabad. Her daughter, a human rights lawyer, told the Monitor that Pakistan was effectively under military rule.

“There is no civilian government in Pakistan right now,” says Imaan Zainab Mazari-Hazir. “Orders are coming directly from senior army and intelligence officials. There is complete abuse of law and impunity for the same.”

With the senior leadership of PTI in jail, there are fears that skirmishes between protesters and the state could continue over the weekend – but even if they do not, the crisis has left virtually every institution in the country tarnished.

“We were already facing a crippling economic crisis, an unprecedented political crisis, a constitutional crisis, burgeoning terrorism, a crisis of trust,” says a PTI senator, Sania Nishtar. “In this environment, the politically motivated illegal arrest of Pakistan’s most popular leader will have far-reaching consequences.”

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