Pakistan to crack down on Imran Khan’s party

Pakistani authorities have cracked down on former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, detaining thousands of the popular opposition leader’s supporters and reportedly pressuring key allies to quit the group.

The Pakistani military and the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif have responded violently to violent protests this month, sparked by the arrest of Khan by an anti-corruption agency. At least 10 people were killed in the demonstrations and military buildings were damaged.

Khan, who is out on bail, claimed on Thursday that 10,000 PTI supporters were in jail. According to the government’s estimate, this number is lower.

“The state is trying to split the party,” Khan said, warning that Pakistan had begun the “descent of fascism” under Sharif.

Several senior PTI leaders have been arrested and some have suddenly announced their resignation from the party and politics in recent days. These included Fawad Chaudhry and Shireen Mazari, both former PTI ministers. Mazari announced his retirement on Tuesday after being arrested four times this month.

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Sharif and the military, which plays a major behind-the-scenes role in governing the country, have condemned the violence by Khan’s supporters and vowed to take action against the alleged perpetrators, whom the prime minister has accused of terrorism. Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said on Wednesday that the authorities were considering banning the PTI.

Khan, who ran a relentless and often vitriolic campaign for snap elections, and his party condemned the violence.

The former prime minister offered on Wednesday to negotiate with the government to find a solution to the crisis – his most significant concession since he was ousted in a confidence vote last year. “If they have a solution and [show] that the country is better off without Imran Khan, I am ready to step aside,” he said.

The arrests alarmed international observers, with UN Human Rights Commissioner Volker Türk warning on Wednesday that “the rule of law [is] in serious danger”.

Analysts say the strike, which they say is being organized by the military, is one of the most significant challenges to Pakistan’s democracy since it returned to civilian rule in 2008 after years of dictatorship.

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“The current crackdown is evidence of a slide toward total authoritarianism,” said Uzair Younus, director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “The current structure is still a facade of civilian democratic rule through parliament. Whether he survives the attack remains to be seen.”

He added that the campaign is “led by the military and plays the role of a willing junior partner to the coalition government in Islamabad.”

The Pakistani military and government did not respond to requests for comment.

Khan faces a litany of legal challenges, including allegations of corruption and terrorism, all of which he denies. Although many analysts said he would be the most popular candidate in national elections due in October, he could be barred from running if convicted.

“The PTI should be effectively handcuffed before the elections are held,” said Imtiaz Gul, a political commentator in Islamabad. “This is a systematic handcuffing of the most popular political party.”

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Civil society groups also called on authorities to track down pro-PTI journalist Imran Riaz Khan, who has been missing since his arrest on May 11.

The campaign group Reporters Without Borders claimed that Khan, who is not related to the former prime minister, was “abducted” by the military. “Pakistani authorities will be held directly responsible for any harm caused to him,” the group said in a statement.

On Thursday, his family reported a second journalist, Sami Ibrahim, missing.