Islamabad, Pakistan – As soon as Akram* saw the news last week that Imran Khan had been arrested, he thought of stepping out and protesting against what he believed was an “abduction” of a former prime minister.
“I messaged our WhatsApp group of PTI [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 due to fears for his safety.
Akram, a marketing professional, joined some 80 others who took to the streets in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi to demand the release of Khan, who was detained by paramilitary troops on charges of corruption on May 9 as he appeared at a court in the capital, Islamabad, for a different case.
“We had placards and we were chanting slogans supporting Khan. Initially, uniformed policemen came to us and strictly told us not to block roads or create any civic unrest. But within half an hour, a group of policemen in civilian clothes came and picked more than 40 of us, threw us in a police vehicle and took us to a lock-up,” Akram told Al Jazeera.
He added that he was taken to five different police stations before being placed “in a tiny cell” with more than 30 others.
“The conditions were repulsive, and there was barely any space to breathe there. The police kept me for two days, without filing any case, before releasing me,” said Akram.
His release on May 11 came on the same day the Supreme Court declared Khan’s arrest illegal. The arrest had triggered 48 hours of violence across the country that saw rioting, 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 the top military commander in the eastern city of Lahore and other military buildings would be tried in military courts.
“The offenders were 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 rioting under the country’s draconian army laws, which overrule civilian courts.
The military courts are separate from Pakistan’s civilian legal system where the judges are members of the army’s legal branch. The hearings taking place at military installations where the media does not have access. If convicted, a person has no right to appeal their case in another court.
International rights organisations and groups within Pakistan have staunchly criticised the decision to use military courts to try civilians, arguing that this risks violating their right to due process.
HRCP strongly opposes the use of the Pakistan Army Act 1952 and Official Secrets Act 1923 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. 1/2
— Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (@HRCP87) May 16, 2023
The Pakistani army is a dominant player in the country’s political affairs and directly ruled it for more than three decades since 1947.
Khan, who was removed last year through a parliamentary vote of no confidence, has repeatedly blamed the army chief, General Syed Asim Munir, for his arrest and the crackdown against the PTI.
Both the government and the military have singled out Khan for sowing hatred against the army and said the people involved in riots last week will be brought to justice.
In a statement on Wednesday, the military, quoting the army chief, said “the recently planned and orchestrated tragic incidents will never be allowed again at any cost”.
Family members arrested
While relatives of those arrested in the crackdown were too scared to talk about it due to fears of state retaliation and intimidation, others did.
Azhar Mashwani, a Lahore-based PTI worker, said he was out of his hometown of Lahore when he was informed that his 73-year-old father and his brother were picked up from their home.
“My house where my parents, my wife and my brother’s family all live together was raided by plain-clothed officials thrice on May 10 … [They] asked about my whereabouts and then when they came a third time, they took away my father and brother,” Mashwani told Al Jazeera by phone from Lahore where he is hiding at an undisclosed location.
He added that while his family also supported the PTI, none of them had attended the protests last week.
“My brother is a college professor and has four children. My father has retired and is in frail health. But still, they were picked up and were constantly pressurised that they reveal my location,” Mashwani told Al Jazeera.
“My father was returned after three days but we have no idea where my brother is. We have not spoken to him for the last six days. His children haven’t gone to school.”
Mashwani, who is a member of the PTI’s social media team, was arrested by the police in April for more than a week, taken to different cities and made to take a polygraph test where he was questioned on his role in the party. No formal case was filed against him. Mashwani called it an “abduction”.
‘I don’t know what to do’
A similar story was recalled by Atique Riaz, a 43-year-old accountant in Lahore and a father of two children. His wife, Sanam Javed Khan, was arrested on May 10 and is still in custody.
“Sanam is a huge PTI supporter and she was protesting 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 was attending another demonstration on Wednesday when I received a call from her, informing [me] she has been picked up by the police along with 17 other women.”
Riaz said he was able to see his wife at the detention centre for the first five days of her arrest but has not had any contact since Monday night. He does not know where his wife has been taken to.
“I don’t know what to do. My kids have not stopped crying and calling for their mother,” said Riaz, adding that he has barely slept over the past week.
“I don’t know if my wife will be tried under the Army Act or not. I don’t even know on what charges she is being detained. She was not even involved in any kind of arson.”
Hammad Azhar, a senior PTI leader who has evaded arrest over last week’s violence so far, said the decision to try protesters under the Army Act “is being done to intimidate and victimise the party”.
“In the 14 months since this ruling alliance is in government, democratic norms have been snatched. The decision to set up military courts by the NSC is just another sequence in this long chain of events,” he told Al Jazeera from an undisclosed location in Lahore.
However, Akram, the Karachi-based marketing professional, said he did not feel any anger towards the security forces when he was released from jail.
“I just felt sorry for the people who work for these institutions, and who must follow the instructions given to them by their bosses. These people in uniform, they need freedom. Only a handful of people at the top are maligning the army with their actions. They should be taken to task. This persecution cannot continue forever.”
*Name changed to protect the person’s identity.