ISLAMABAD — Pakistani security forces surrounded the home of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore on Thursday, in a further escalation of a political crisis that has gripped the country for over a year.
The security forces’ action came after Punjab Interim Information Minister Amir Mir demanded Khan hand over dozens of “terrorists” he alleged Khan was harboring — protesters authorities believe are among those who smashed up and set fire to army installations last week. Their actions were part of an unprecedented show of anger after paramilitary forces detained Khan last Tuesday from a courthouse. He was released last Thursday, after the Supreme Court ruled his detention was illegal.
The government announced a 24-hour deadline for Khan to hand over the wanted individuals, which expired on Thursday at 2 p.m. Pakistan time (5 a.m. ET). As that deadline passed, Khan invited journalists to his sweeping compound to film whatever would happen.
Speaking with NPR via Zoom, he said he believed those forces intended to arrest him, or even kill him, a claim he has made repeatedly in recent days. But he said he would not go into exile. “This is where I will live and die. I will be here till my last breath. There’s no question of me leaving my country.”
Pakistan has been in crisis since April last year, when the military signaled it no longer supported Khan’s government and he lost a no-confidence vote in Parliament. The military is Pakistan’s most powerful institution, and it was widely seen as propelling Khan to power.
Since then, Khan has fought back with street protests, court challenges and by communicating with supporters on social media. He demands early elections, which analysts say he would likely win.
But Khan is embroiled in dozens of criminal cases, including serious corruption allegations. If he is found guilty, he will likely be disqualified from running for office again. Khan told NPR he believed that was the point. He repeated a claim he has frequently made that Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Asim Munir, and the government coalition are trying to eliminate him politically. “He along with this 12-party coalition have decided that whatever happens, Imran Khan can’t win the elections,” he said.
In response, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told NPR that Khan’s “commitment to [the] state, his commitment to Pakistan … is dependent upon his being in the government.”
Referring to Khan’s supporters who attacked military compounds last week, Asif said, “They have attacked the state of Pakistan. This is not political agitation or political protest. It is a protest against the state.” He continued: “Army installations, army headquarters and air bases are attacked by Indians, by our enemies across the border. They have never been attacked by Pakistanis [before].”
The Pakistani army said earlier this week that some protesters would be tried in secret military courts, a prospect that has raised human rights concerns and led to condemnation by some parliamentarians.
Security forces have also intensified a crackdown against Khan’s supporters and senior advisers. Some, after being released on bail, stepped out of the courthouses and were arrested again. “It’s a total banana republic right now,” Khan told NPR. “We are headed for out-and-out martial law.”
The defense minister insisted that Khan’s supporters and advisers were being treated fairly. He said he did not favor negotiations with Khan to end the crisis.
Pakistan’s military spokesman has so far not spoken directly to media.
One prominent analyst lays blame for the country’s current crisis on the army, for interfering in the country’s’ political system.
“This is entirely the responsibility of the military,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist who heads a think tank, Tabadlab. Ticking off a long list of times the military intervened to boost politicians’ fortunes, only to persecute them later, he said, “This is something that the military is going to have to seriously consider what it’s doing.”