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In the year since PTI supporters stormed military headquarters in Rawalpindi on May 9, Pakistan’s public clearly rejected the military’s control of election outcomes, suppression of political dissent, and judicial interference in a marked shift from previous political turnovers. In his latest press conference, the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) referred to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s May 9 protest as anti-state and unpardonable. He avoided mentioning Imran Khan, the former Prime Minister and Party Leader, who is explicitly banned from being mentioned in national media, and instead repeatedly referred to the PTI as the “intashari tola” (anarchist group). The DG ISPR did not respond to several pressing inquiries brought up by PTI leaders, including Khan, regarding the lack of security in cantonment areas during the May 9 protest, Khan’s mistreatment, numerous unlawful detentions, instances of forced disappearances, and civilian trials in military courts. PTI’s Secretary of Information, Raouf Hassan, held a press conference in response to the statement by the DG ISPR, but the media did not air it. 

Since Khan lost his premiership through a vote of no confidence in 2022, the military’s attempts to suppress the party’s political activity were swift and severe, arresting PTI workers and triggering heavy-handed media censorship, social media blackouts, and unconstitutional delays in provincial and general elections. Censorship and the suppression of political and civil liberties under the military’s control of Pakistan are not new phenomena, as the PTI is not the first party to experience this treatment.

May 9 remains a significant date in Pakistan’s political history, but what makes the first anniversary stand out is the Pakistani public’s overt rejection of military interference in government. The current public attitude indicates a potential shift in tolerance for undue interference, hinting at a possible change in Pakistan’s political landscape.  

Previously considered Pakistan’s most trusted institution despite its legacy of repression, the military’s image has suffered, with a visible shift in public attitudes in the year since May 9

A Pattern of Military Involvement 

The military’s response to the May 9 protest is part of a familiar pattern seen throughout Pakistan’s history. It has long repressed political leaders and parties whose interests collide with its own, including the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Baloch nationalist parties, Pashtun political groups, and leaders like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Nawab Akbar Bugti, and Fatimah Jinnah. One of the ways that the military does this is by orchestrating or supporting anti-government protests and assemblies, often led by religious groups, in order to pressure civilian authorities. Documented examples appear across Pakistan’s political history, from the Faizabad Dharna in 2017 to the Islami Jamhoori Itehhad in the 1990s against Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. In 2018, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N accused the military establishment of pre-poll rigging and trumped-up charges. Journalists were abducted by armed men widely thought to be linked to the military, who also censored media publications in the lead-up to the election.

In addition to artificially manipulating public pressure, the military controls discourse in the country through media censorship. The country continues to face repeated unannounced internet disruptions, including a total shutdown of X (formerly Twitter) in April 2024, justified under national security concerns – a move decried by the country’s civil society. In General Zia’s days, this also included censoring the print media, and in General Pervez Musharraf’s period, the military suspended news channels after declaring a state of emergency in November 2007. Even under Khan’s government, when the PML-N was out of favor with the military, regulatory authorities banned Nawaz Sharif’s appearances, speeches, and statements from all electronic media.

History Repeats Itself: Military Crackdown Post-May 9 Raises Human Rights Concerns

Since May 9, some of the same old military tactics, such as enabling protests, intimidating and repressing politicians, and rigging elections, have also been used against the PTI. The military has also used the judiciary to bury the PTI in legal cases and strip the party of the ability to participate in the election. 

Crackdown on PTI and its Supporters

In the aftermath of the May 9 protests, PTI leadership alleged that men sent by the military helped to incite the riots, instigating crowds and damaging public property, including residences of high-ranking military officers. Following Khan’s arrest, paramilitary and police forces arrested PTI leadership and supporters, often without any charges. When law enforcement couldn’t locate the men, women and children were abducted by “unknowns,” exacerbating an environment of fear. The mass arrests and excessive use of force against peaceful protesters suggest a disregard for the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the norms of liberal democracies, where dissent and peaceful assembly are typically tolerated and protected. 

The establishment released political leaders only after they agreed to press conferences that involved a monotonous theme: denouncing the May 9 protests, paying homage to the military’s sacrifices in its fight against terrorism, and parting ways with the PTI. Former PTI members appeared on national media and were coerced into reading scripted denunciations of Khan. National media extensively covered these coerced statements. The military pardoned those who condemned Khan, forcing some to join newly created parties with the establishment’s blessing, while those who refused to testify against him or quit the party remain in jail. Journalists who accused the military of suppressing freedom of speech in the country fled Pakistan out of personal safety concerns.  

If the Supreme Court does not recognize the claims of the IHC judges, it will have failed to be one of the few remaining civilian institutions pushing back against the military’s interference.

Coercion Through Other Institutions

The military’s direct influence on civil institutions undermines their strength and efficacy. A major reflection of this decline are the allegations of pre-polling rigging and the contentious election results. While Pakistan has a history of rigged elections, the 2024 elections stood out, with myriad political parties identifying a shocking breadth of discrepancies in the initial electoral results at the polling booths and the final constituency results.

The military did not limit itself to political coercion. It also pressured the judiciary, a branch of government previously considered to be a bulwark against military interference. Khan is involved in nearly 200 cases, with convictions in three, one of which led the court to nullify his marriage in an unprecedented decision. These convictions stem from mostly fabricated charges, including that he embezzled state gifts and disclosed state secrets. Finally, the military trials of 104 civilians in military courts on the pretext of protests are not only unconstitutional but also contrary to international laws, as they curb the civilian courts’ jurisdiction. 

Resistance to the Military Reveals Deteriorating Institutional Tolerance

Previously considered Pakistan’s most trusted institution despite its legacy of repression, the military’s image has suffered, with a visible shift in public attitudes in the year since May 9. On February 8 this year, the Pakistani people responded to the military’s repression of political liberties by voting in an overwhelming majority for independent candidates backed by Imran Khan, despite election delays and evidence of extensive election interference. 

Additionally, the bureaucracy and judiciary, which have previously refrained from voicing their disagreements, reacted with unusual defiance to the military establishment’s interference in civilian affairs. A number of bureaucrats, such as the Deputy Commissioner of Rawalpindi, have made statements that “the results of the February 8 general elections were ‘manipulated’ under his watch,” and interviews of released abductees since May 9. Another officer working in the Ministry of Information was charge-sheeted and suspended for openly dissenting against the caretaker government’s unlawful orders.

On March 26, six judges of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) brought a case to the Supreme Court in a letter that alleges that the military’s intelligence services attempted to interfere in judicial decisions through surveillance and blackmail. The letter claims that the military bugged judges’ residences, leaked personal information, and abducted close relatives, in addition to other overreaches. Khan’s legal representatives have repeatedly taken to social media to disclose instances where judges have confided in them about agency pressure. An excerpt of one letter from an IHC judge, disclosed during a recent court hearing, revealed allegations that the military intelligence agencies directly threatened him to “back off.” Two judges of the Supreme Court have also tendered their resignations under these pressure tactics. On May 11, 2023, the Supreme Court of Pakistan also ruled Khan’s arrest illegal

As the country comes to grips with the events since May 9 and the aftermath of the 2024 elections, it is clear that there is an enduring public appetite for reforming the role of the military, not just in domestic politics but also in other critical areas such as foreign policy, the economy, and broader issues of governance and public policy. 

One of the short-term litmus tests for democracy and rule of law in Pakistan will be the Supreme Court’s decision on the case brought by the six judges of the IHC. If the Supreme Court does not recognize the claims of the IHC judges, it will have failed to be one of the few remaining civilian institutions pushing back against the military’s interference. However, in the long term, to regain public trust and faith in the state, Pakistan’s institutions must support civilian supremacy over the military. 

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Editor’s Note: Please note that the author ‘Abdul Ghafoor’ is a pseudonym used for privacy purposes.

Also Read: Pakistan’s Post-Election Environment: Experts React

Image 1: The Supreme Court of Pakistan, Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: Members of the Pakistani diaspora protest in central London against former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest, Flickr

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