Pakistani authorities have launched a crackdown on former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, detaining thousands of the popular opposition leader’s supporters and allegedly pressuring senior allies to quit the group.
Pakistan’s army and the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif have responded fiercely to violent protests this month sparked by Khan’s arrest by an anti-corruption agency. At least 10 people have died in the protests and military buildings have been vandalised.
Khan, who is out on bail, claimed on Thursday that 10,000 PTI supporters were in jail. The government has estimated that the figure is lower.
“The state is trying to dismantle the party,” Khan said, warning that Pakistan had begun a “descent into fascism” under Sharif.
A number of senior PTI leaders have also been arrested, and some abruptly announced they were quitting the party and leaving politics in recent days. These included Fawad Chaudhry and Shireen Mazari, both former PTI ministers. Mazari announced her retirement on Tuesday after being arrested four times this month.
Sharif and the army, which plays a powerful behind-the-scenes role in governing the country, have condemned the violence by Khan’s supporters and vowed to crack down on the alleged perpetrators, with the prime minister accusing them of terrorism. Defence minister Khawaja Asif said on Wednesday that authorities were considering banning the PTI.
Khan, who has led a relentless and often vitriolic campaign for immediate elections, and his party have also condemned the violence.
On Wednesday, the former prime minister offered to negotiate with the government to find a solution to the crisis — his most significant concession since his removal from office in a no-confidence vote last year. “If they have a solution and [show] that the country will do better without Imran Khan, I am ready to step aside,” he said.
The arrests have alarmed international observers, with the UN’s human rights commissioner Volker Türk warning on Wednesday that “the rule of law [is] at serious risk”.
Analysts said the crackdown, which they believe is being orchestrated by the military, is one of the most significant challenges to democracy in Pakistan since it returned to civilian rule in 2008 after years of dictatorship.
“The current crackdown is evidence of a slide towards full-blown authoritarianism,” said Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think-tank. “The current structure still has a facade of civilian democratic rule through parliament. Whether it survives the onslaught remains to be seen.”
He added that the campaign was “being driven by the military, with the coalition government in Islamabad playing the role of a willing junior partner”.
Pakistan’s military and the government did not respond to requests for comment.
Khan is facing a barrage of legal challenges, including allegations of corruption and terrorism, all of which he denies. While many analysts said he would be the most popular candidate in national elections due to be held by October, he may be barred from running if convicted.
“Before the elections are held, the PTI will be effectively shackled,” said Imtiaz Gul, a political commentator in Islamabad. “It’s a systematic shackling of the most popular political party.”
Civil society groups have also called on authorities to find Imran Riaz Khan, a pro-PTI journalist who has been missing since his arrest on May 11.
Campaign group Reporters Without Borders alleged that Khan, who is not related to the former prime minister, had been “abducted” by the military. “Pakistani authorities will be held directly responsible for any harm that may have befallen him,” the group said in a statement.
A second journalist, Sami Ibrahim, was also reported missing by his family on Thursday.