Islamabad, Pakistan – When Akram* saw the news last week that Imran Khan had been arrested, he thought of going out and protesting against what he believed to be a “kidnapping” of a former prime minister.
“I messaged our PTI WhatsApp group [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] supporters, asking that we must gather outside to protest against this illegal act,” the 40-year-old told Al Jazeera on Wednesday on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety.
Akram, a marketing professional, joined about 80 others who took to the streets of Pakistan’s largest city Karachi to demand the release of Khan, who was detained by paramilitary troops on corruption charges on May 9 while he appeared in court in the capital. , Islamabad, for another case.
“We had placards and we chanted slogans supporting Khan. At first, uniformed policemen approached us and strictly told us not to block the roads or create any civil unrest. But inside the half an hour, a group of policemen in civilian clothes came and picked more than 40 of us, threw us into a police car and took us to a lock-up,” Akram said Al Jazeera.
He added that he was taken to five different police stations before being placed “in a small cell” with more than 30 others.
“The conditions were bad, and there was hardly any room to breathe there. The police detained me for two days, without charging me, before releasing me,” said Akram.
His release on May 11 came the same day the Supreme Court declared Khan’s arrest illegal. The arrest triggered 48 hours of violence across the country that saw riots, arson and vandalism against public and private properties, including military installations.
More than 10 people were killed in the clashes and thousands were arrested, including many senior PTI leaders.
Fears of military court trials
Amir Mir, the interim information minister of Punjab province, where more than 3,200 people were arrested, said those accused of targeting the residence of a top military commander in the eastern city of Lahore and other buildings in military will be tried by military courts.
“The offenders are identified only after 100 percent confirmation of their involvement in the attacks. We will make an example out of them so nobody can dare repeat this in future,” Mir told reporters on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Pakistan’s National Security Committee (NSC) approved the military’s decision to try those involved in the riots under the country’s draconian army laws, overriding civilian courts.
Military courts are separate from Pakistan’s civilian legal system where judges are members of the military’s legal branch. The hearings were held at military installations to which the media had no access. If convicted, a person does not have the right to appeal their case to another court.
International rights organizations and groups within Pakistan have strongly criticized the decision to use military courts to try civilians, arguing that it risks violating their right to due process.
The HRCP strongly opposed the use of the Pakistan Army Act 1952 and Official Secrets Act 1923 to try civilians. While those responsible for burning and damaging public and private property in recent protests must be brought to justice, they remain entitled to due process. 1/2
— Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (@HRCP87) May 16, 2023
The Pakistani army is the dominant player in the country’s political affairs and has ruled it directly for more than three decades since 1947.
Khan, who was ousted last year by a parliamentary vote of no confidence, has repeatedly blamed the army chief, General Syed Asim Munir, for his arrest and crackdown on the PTI.
The government and military singled out Khan for spreading hatred against the army and said those involved in last week’s riots would be brought to justice.
In a statement on Wednesday, the military, quoting the army chief, said “the recent planned and orchestrated tragic incidents will not be allowed again at any cost”.
Family members were arrested
While relatives of those arrested in the crackdown are too afraid to talk about it for fear of reprisals and state intimidation, others are scared.
Azhar Mashwani, a PTI worker based in Lahore, said he was on his way from his hometown Lahore when he was informed that his 73-year-old father and his brother were taken from their home.
“My house where my parents, my wife and my brother’s family all live together was raided by plainclothes officers three times on May 10… [They] asked about my whereabouts and then when they came the third time, they took my father and brother,” Mashwani told Al Jazeera by phone from Lahore where he is hiding in an undisclosed location.
He added that while his family also supported the PTI, none of them attended the protests last week.
“My brother is a college professor and has four children. My father is retired and in poor health. But even then, they are taken and always forced to reveal my location,” Mashwani told Al Jazeera.
“My father was returned after three days but we do not know where my brother is. We haven’t spoken to him in the last six days. His children did not go to school.”
Mashwani, who is a member of PTI’s social media team, was arrested by the police in April for over a week, taken to different cities and made to take a polygraph test where he was asked about his role in the party. No formal charges have been filed against him. Mashwani called it “abduction”.
‘I don’t know what to do’
A similar story is recalled by Atique Riaz, a 43-year-old accountant in Lahore and father of two children. His wife, Sanam Javed Khan, was arrested on May 10 and is still in custody.
“Sanam is a big supporter of PTI and she protested on the streets of Lahore on May 9, but she was not part of any kind of violence or riots,” Riaz told Al Jazeera.
“My wife attended another demonstration on Wednesday when I received a call from her, informing [me] the police arrested her along with 17 other women.”
Riaz said that he saw his wife in the detention center for the first five days of her arrest but she has not had any contact since Monday night. He did not know where his wife was taken.
“I don’t know what to do. My children have not stopped crying and calling for their mother,” said Riaz, adding that he had hardly slept in the past week.
“I don’t know if my wife will be prosecuted under the Army Act or not. I don’t know what charges he is being held on. He was not even involved in any kind of arson.”
Hammad Azhar, a senior PTI leader who has eluded arrest in violence over the past week so far, said the decision to try the protesters under the Army Act was “made to intimidate and victimize the party”.
“In the 14 months since this ruling coalition government, democratic norms have been seized. The decision to establish military courts in the NSC is just one more sequence in this long chain of events,” he said. Al Jazeera from an undisclosed location in Lahore.
However, Akram, the Karachi-based marketing professional, said he did not feel angered by the security forces when he was released from prison.
“I only feel sorry for the people who work in these institutions, and have to follow the instructions given by their bosses. These people in uniform, they need freedom. Only a few people at the top are doing harm of the army for their actions. They must be brought to task. This persecution cannot continue forever.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the person.