Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has told Al Jazeera he does not “have a problem” with the country’s army chief but accused Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Asim Munir of trying to stop him from returning to power.
“I have no problem with him, but he seems to have a problem with me,” Khan told Al Jazeera in an interview on Saturday days after the civilian government said it will use a controversial army law to try supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party involved in damaging military installations.
“I haven’t done anything to antagonise the army chief, but there is something he has against me which I don’t know,” the former prime minister and head of the PTI party said.
The cricketer-turned-politician has accused Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of being “a puppet” of the powerful army, which has carried out multiple coups against civilian governments since the South Asian country’s independence in 1947.
The 70-year-old leader, speaking from his residence in the eastern city of Lahore, accused the police of arresting 7,500 protestors believed to be from his party. Khan urged his supporters to remain peaceful in case he is arrested, adding that the government will use instances of violence to launch a crackdown on the opposition activists and leaders.
“Entire top leadership [of the party] is arrested. You know, there are about 150 cases on me, so I could be arrested any time. But the point is, you cannot arrest an idea whose time has come,” Khan told Al Jazeera from his Zaman Park residence, where he has been holed up since May 13 after his release on bail.
Protests against his May 9 arrest sparked widespread unrest, with a mob of his alleged supporters storming the residence of a top military commander in Lahore and setting it on fire.
Call to end ‘arbitrary arrests’
Last week, the country’s civilian and military leaders said rioters and their backers who attacked Pakistan’s state assets and military installations during protests will be tried under army law.
The move has been condemned by rights organisations and activists, who argue that this risks violating civilians’ right to due process.
On Saturday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned what it called “arbitrary arrests” of more than 4,000 people in the wake of the protests.
“The Pakistani authorities should end their arbitrary arrests of political opposition activists and peaceful protesters,” said HRW’s Associate Asia Director Patricia Gossman.
Pakistan: Mass Arrests Target Political Opposition https://t.co/vWbET6aRwq
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) May 20, 2023
She urged that the “due process rights” of the detained be respected and that authorities display restraint and respect for human rights and the rule of law.
HRW underlined that Pakistani law requires all detainees to be brought before a court within 24 hours, which is consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a party.
“Fundamental guarantees of peaceful protest and due process should not become casualties of Pakistan’s political conflict,” Gossman said.
‘Haven’t done anything to antagonise army chief’
Khan was ousted from power following a parliamentary vote of no-confidence last April, but he has accused the army of being behind his removal. His popularity has soared as the country has descended into its worst financial crisis in decades, with millions of Pakistanis facing food shortages.
Since his removal, Khan has organised dozens of mass rallies attracting tens of thousands of people and demanding snap general elections.
He reiterated his accusation that he was aware former Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa tried to oust him, adding that he could have used his power as prime minister to remove Bajwa from his position, but decided against it as he did not want to interfere with the army.
“[The] army is an institution you don’t interfere with…,” he said.
‘Government and establishment want to crush PTI’
The government has blamed Khan’s supporters for causing damage to military assets and has called him out for not condemning the violent protests that followed his arrest.
Khan was quick to defend himself, saying he was unaware of the violent protest while he was being held, and accused the police of killing 25 of his “unarmed supporters”.
“If I am jailed again, I don’t want violence [as] it feeds into the narrative of the PDM [Pakistan Democratic Movement],” he said, referring to the alliance of 12 political parties that launched the no-confidence vote against him last year.
“These parties are petrified of us, so they want to use violence to clamp down on us,” said the former PM, adding that the dozens of criminal cases filed against him and the arrest of his party’s top leadership are aimed at preventing him from contesting the upcoming general election.
“Every [opinion] survey says we will win the elections with a two-thirds majority, so the government and the establishment want to crush PTI,” Khan said.