Even in the best of circumstances, Pakistan’s relationship with the ideas of democracy, civil liberties, and human rights has been sporadic. The Pakistani state has always engaged in abuse of power, extraconstitutional interventions, and extrajudicial and extralegal actions. Hope is sparked that civilians will ensure the grundnorm rules during the brief interregnums when the civilian returns to office, though never in power because that is always elusive in the quasimilitary dispensation, also known as the Deep State and the military establishment that makes the decisions. But within a few months, these expectations are dashed, and Pakistan’s people see their desires for democracy crushed as the regular abnormal returns.
In recent weeks, Pakistan has once again fallen into the abyss of democracy’s demise. The civilian government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif is feeble, inefficient, effete, and dependent on the all-powerful Pakistan Army, which is under the command of Gen. Asim Munir, the new man on horseback. The latter seems to be a more subdued and understated, but no less vicious, counterpart of Pakistan’s most infamous dictator, Gen. Ziaul Haq. In only a few short weeks, Pakistan has become a wasteland for democracy, civil liberties, and human rights under the new hybrid dictatorship that has succeeded the previous hybrid regime of Gen. Qamar Bajwa and Imran Khan. Even worse, compared to the way the ShahbazAsim Munir coalition is stifling dissent and the media, it has made Imran Khan, who was formerly seen as a predator of media liberties, appear nice.
In Pakistan, the crackdown on the media has intensified. The sole reason why journalists and YouTubers are being charged with sedition is because they have criticized the military’s snobbery and that of its civilian henchwomen. Supporting Imran Khan is equivalent to treason, and having an independent political opinion is now a crime. Imran Khan’s name cannot even be spoken on television, much less reported upon.
Khan is now limited to using digital media to spread his message. Some may argue that Imran Khan deserved it since he similarly attacked his political opponents. But during Imran Khan’s time as prime minister, much more has occurred. They have been kidnapped, beaten, and brutalized; they have been charged with sedition; they have been fired from their jobs; their families have been targeted, intimidated, and blackmailed; newspapers are being forced to censor unfavorable news in a much greater number than before; and TV channels are given strict guidelines on what they can and cannot say. One news anchor, Imran Riaz Khan, has been missing for nearly seven weeks.
The majority of journalists are compelled to sing psalms in praise of the Pakistan Army and its commander. Disparaging Imran Khan and his supporters is now the key to success in Pakistan’s “independent” and “free” media, just as disparaging Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari was perfectly acceptable during Imran Khan’s administration. The military monitors are stifling and strangling social media as well.
Consider the difficulties faced by lawmakers who support Imran Khan if you believed Pakistani media had started to resemble Chinese or even North Korean media. After Imran Khan was removed from power in April 2022, both the Army and the administration were unsure of how to approach him. With the help of the Pakistani people, Imran and his allies were able to effectively take on the powerful Pakistani Army and its terrifying intelligence agencies. But after the unrest that followed Imran Khan’s imprisonment on May 9, the Army and the government had the justification they needed to make every effort to destroy Imran Khan’s party, fan base, and political foundation.
The military chose to trial the protesters and the political activists leading them in military tribunals, circumventing the regular legal procedures. In other words, the Pakistani Army is now prepared to try civilians in secret military tribunals. In other words, the Army serves as both judge and executioner. Imran Khan’s political adversaries have eagerly welcomed this as the new benchmark for “justice” in the Islamic Republic. It is obvious that there has been a serious injustice committed and that all judicial norms have been broken. However, everyone seems to be acquiescing in this travesty of the judicial system, even supporting it in foreign venues, such is the dread of the military.
The military is using force to compel defections from Imran Khan’s party on a political level. Political leaders and activists are detained after being arrested and held there until they make a public announcement that they are either quitting politics entirely or leaving Imran Khan and joining another party. Everyone can see the brazenness with which PTI members are being bullied, browbeaten, beguiled, and bribed to leave the party – the activists are detained, granted bail by the courts, but as soon as they are released, they are detained once more, and this cycle continues until they submit to the ISI and MI officials’ orders. When they are eventually let out of prison, they head to the closest press club and declare that they have left PTI, rather than returning home. Senators, members of the national and provincial parliament, cabinet ministers, and party executives have all received the “treatment” and been pressured to leave PTI. Those who have rejected are being pursued, have had their homes assaulted, had family members taken into custody, are being held captive, and are being tortured. Molestation of women is occurring in the houses of Imran’s supporters. According to reports, women who work for PTI have experienced rape, abuse, physical assault, molestation, and a variety of other humiliations.
Even though Pakistan has been identified as the most appalling example of a democratic backslide, Western organizations like RSF, CPJ, V-Dem, Freedom House, and others have found ways to boost the country’s standing in terms of democracy, media freedoms, and civil rights. International human rights organizations and campaigners have kept what can only be described as deafening quiet over the injustices meted out to common Pakistanis who just want their political liberties and the ability to choose their own leaders. The suffering of the people of Pakistan, who are seeing a significant loss in their civil freedoms and being denied their most fundamental human rights, has gone unnoticed by Western nations like the US, UK, and EU member states. Actually, nations like the UK have harshly repressed Pakistani dissidents like Maj. Adil Raja and charged them with terrorism just for denouncing the terrible Pakistan Army. Some sources claim that the Pakistan Army has effectively blackmailed the UK by using anti-terrorist cooperation as leverage and demanding the heads of Pakistani dissidents as payment in exchange.
Conditions in Pakistan will keep getting worse to the disadvantage of the populace unless the international community is prepared to step in and halt the murder of democracy and the egregious breaches of civil liberties and human rights of Pakistani residents. No individual or nation with a conscience can remain silent in this catastrophic circumstance.