Human rights defenders have sharply criticized Pakistan for announcing plans to use military laws to prosecute those responsible for arson during recent protests sparked by the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.
In a statement on Tuesday, Amnesty International described the controversial move as alarming and contrary to international law, and demanded it be struck down immediately.
“This is purely an intimidation tactic designed to crack down on dissent by exercising fear of an institution that has never been held to account for its overreach,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for South Asia, referring to the all-powerful Pakistani military.
Khan was violently taken into custody by paramilitary forces on graft charges from outside a courtroom in the capital, Islamabad, last week as he prepared to attend a hearing in a separate case.
The popular 70-year-old politician has since been released after the Supreme Court outlawed his arrest. But his detention provoked supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party, or PTI, leading to several days of nationwide protests, some of which turned violent.
Protesters clashed with riot police, leaving several people dead and hundreds more injured.
Rallies also marched toward military installations in major cities. They chanted slogans against the powerful Pakistani institution long considered a sacred cow. In the eastern city of Lahore, a group of people stormed the residence of a regional army commander and vandalized it.
The violence prompted the military to announce on Monday it had collected “irrefutable evidence” about culprits involved in “these heinous crimes” and vowed to prosecute them under military and anti-espionage laws. The laws provide for the administration of military justice, including the trial and punishment of army personnel.
“Amnesty International has documented a catalog of human rights violations stemming from trying civilians in military courts in Pakistan, including flagrant disregard for due process, lack of transparency, coerced confessions, and executions after grossly unfair trials,” the global watchdog said.
The country’s independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said Tuesday it strongly opposes using the law to try civilians.
“While those responsible for arson and damaging public and private property during the recent protests should be held to account, they remain entitled to due process,” the HRCP said.
Incumbent Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has vowed to open more anti-terrorism courts to try PTI protesters for their role in last week’s violence.
Khan has distanced his party from the attacks on the military and other targets during the unrest.
The cricket star-turned-politician accused military intelligence agencies of being behind the incidents of shooting and arson during “peaceful” protests by his supporters to justify a nationwide military-backed security crackdown on his party, Pakistan’s largest. Khan did not immediately offer any evidence to back his claims.
He demanded an independent investigation, saying, “Identification of elements involved in this unusual incident of violence and chaos through a credible investigation is inevitable.”
More than 7,000 PTI members, including most of its central leadership, have been arrested on charges of instigating the violence since the unrest erupted a week ago.
The HRCP criticized the police action against Khan’s party, saying it “was deeply concerned about reports of random arrests and cases filed arbitrarily against PTI workers across Pakistan.”
The rights defender stressed the need for making a distinction “between those resorting to violence and nonviolent political workers.”
Khan’s nearly four-year-old government was toppled in April 2022 by a parliamentary vote of no confidence. He has since persistently accused the military of orchestrating his removal to enable Sharif to become prime minister. Both the army and Sharif reject the charges.
The deposed prime minister faces more than 100 legal challenges, ranging from corruption and sedition to terrorism and murder charges. He rejects the allegations, saying they are a pretext for the military to block him from returning to power in elections scheduled for fall.
Khan’s critics say he won the 2018 elections to become the prime minister with the military’s backing, and his ouster was the outcome of tensions with the institution over foreign policy and other issues.
The PTI chief was shot and wounded in the legs late last November while leading a protest march to push the Sharif government to announce early elections.
Khan has accused, among others, a senior general of the military-led Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s primary spy agency, of plotting to kill him. Sharif’s government and the army have denied the charges as baseless. Khan’s scathing criticism of the military over the past year has been unprecedented in the 75-year history of the country.
The military has ruled Pakistan for more than three decades through staged coups against elected governments, and it continues to influence policymaking and foreign policy matters even when it is not in power. Critics say this influence is responsible for the fragility of democracy in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation of about 230 million people.
The Wilson Center in Washington, commenting on the crisis in Pakistan, said Tuesday that the events of the past week provide clear indications that the noose is tightening around Khan and his political party.
“It is a familiar narrative in Pakistan for an opposition party that has fallen out of favour with the military to face adverse consequences,” the center wrote. “However, more significantly, the Army, which has historically held a tight grip on power in the country, has emerged as the most damaged institution from this episode.”