Political, social unrest puts Pakistan on trial

Political, social unrest puts Pakistan on trial


Pakistan plunged into a political turmoil following Imran Khan's arrest

By Fatima Shafiq 

Pakistan plunged into a political turmoil following Imran Khan's arrest and even though he has been granted bail, the nation still braces itself for an uncertain future amidst unprecedented challenges. 

On May 9, the PTI lynchpin was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on corruption charges (in the Al-Qadir Trust case) on the premises of the Islamabad High Court. The corruption charges levelled against the prominent political figure ignited a firestorm of anger and resentment, prompting thousands to take to the streets.

The violence resulted in extensive damage to public property, further exacerbating the already strained resources of the nation. Government buildings, transport infrastructure and public amenities fell a victim to the fury unleashed by the protesters, leaving the country to bear the heavy financial burden of rebuilding and reconstruction. 

In a statement, a German automobile company expressed concern over the massive losses it faced as its showroom was set on fire by protesters: “We are deeply saddened to inform you about the unfortunate incident that took place during last night’s riots in Lahore. Regrettably, our Audi Showroom in Lahore has been subjected to severe destruction.” 

The protesters also assaulted and damaged the historic Jinnah House (which is Lahore corps commander's residence) and other military installations in an unprecedented act of vandalism. 

The military declared May 9, 2023 a "black day" in history following the riots. 

Concerns about human rights violations 

As Pakistan grapples with escalating political turmoil, concerns regarding human rights violations have come to the forefront. Adding to the turmoil, the government's decision to ban internet services, the arrests of protesters and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) workers, and the announcement of army trial for those who vandalised properties have drawn criticism from rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the HRCP. 

These developments raise serious questions about the need to safeguard human rights in the country. The ban on internet services during the period of unrest raised alarm among human rights advocates. This move, while intended to curb unrest, had significant ramifications for businesses and individuals heavily reliant on online connectivity.

The shutdown disrupted communication channels, hampered e-commerce activities and exacerbated the economic fallout from the political upheaval as nearly 125 million Pakistanis were affected.

The disruption of online communication channels, social media platforms and access to information not only limits freedom of expression but also restricts the ability of citizens to stay informed and exercise their basic rights. “International human rights law prohibits broad, indiscriminate, and indefinite restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including the right to free expression and to provide and receive information,” the Human Rights Watch said.

Furthermore, the arrests of protesters and PTI leaders including Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Shireen Mazari, Asad Umar and Fawad Chaudhry have raised concerns about the arbitrary exercise of power and the violation of individuals' rights to peaceful assembly and expression. Amnesty International has voiced its apprehension, calling for due process and fair treatment for those detained. 

According to a tweet by Imran Khan, “around 7,000 PTI workers, leadership and our women have been jailed with plans to ban the largest and only federal party in Pakistan.”

Adding to the concerns, the announcement of army trial for civilians involved in property vandalism has sparked debate on human rights issues. Critics argue that military trials may undermine civilian authority and due process, potentially leading to human rights violations.

“Trying civilians in military courts is contrary to international law,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Deputy Regional Director for South Asia at Amnesty International.

Polarisation and public distrust 

The deep-rooted polarisation and widening trust deficit within Pakistan have plunged the nation into a state of civil unrest and anarchy. With divisions permeating key institutions including the army, judiciary and political parties (PDM and PTI), the country is faced with mass arrests, a breakdown of law and order, widespread protests and episodes of violence.

The polarisation has resulted in a loss of trust among the populace, leading to a breakdown in societal cohesion and undermining the foundations of democratic governance. The fractured situation has left the government grappling to maintain control and effectively address the concerns of the citizens.

In this highly volatile climate, ex-prime minister Imran Khan is calling for peaceful protests until fresh elections can be held to restore stability. Prominent figures such as Maleeha Lodi, former ambassador to the US and UK, assert that "fresh elections are the only means to escape from the political quagmire."