Imran Khan Is Just the Beginning of Pakistan’s Democratic Woes

The country’s democratic backsliding goes further than the embattled former prime minister—and further back.

September 1, 2023 12:56 pm

Lynne O’Donnell
This undated 2009 photo shows journalist Lynne O’Donnell in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. O’Donnell, a foreign correspondent who has covered major stories throughout the Middle East and Asia for two decades, has been named Kabul bureau chief for The Associated Press, leading the agency’s coverage of Afghanistan at a time of transition and turmoil. The appointment was announced on Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014 by Ian Phillips, AP’s Middle East news director, and Dan Perry, the regional editor for text. (AP Photo/Courtney Body)

By Lynne O’Donnell

Pakistan is living under the pall of authoritarianism as the rowdy circus of political survival pushes the urgent need for reform and accountability into the shadows. Rights activists say successive governments, regardless of political stripe, have consistently used the law to weaken civil society and undermine the democratic ideals they claim to stand for.

Most of the drama of late has surrounded former Prime Minister Imran Khan, ousted from office in 2022 and currently in prison on what he says are trumped-up charges fabricated to ensure he can’t run in the next election. The government was dissolved on Aug. 9 ahead of elections meant to be held within 90 days but which probably won’t happen before February after outgoing Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s administration ordered a redrawing of electoral boundaries following a census that found a significant increase in the population and which is likely to take some months.

The Islamabad High Court on Tuesday suspended Khan’s three-year prison sentence for corruption, though he still faces many charges that could lead to conviction and a ban on standing for election. Since losing a no-confidence vote and the premiership in the spring of 2022, Khan has organized disruptive demonstrations, some of which have turned violent. Even though his four years in office failed to come to grips with Pakistan’s problems, he is still viewed as overwhelmingly likely to win an election if a criminal conviction doesn’t disqualify him first.

former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan
former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

But Pakistan’s democratic woes go both further than Khan—and further back. In recent years, different governments have taken several steps to neutralize civil society and muzzle potential sources of dissent and political opposition. By using the census to order that electoral boundaries be redrawn, Sharif has opened himself up to accusations of gerrymandering, an age-old mechanism used by those in power to ensure electoral victory, and just one of the ruses that presiding governments use to stay in power. (It was allegedly deployed in Balochistan in 2013, when minority Hazaras were disenfranchised and the chief minister was elected with just 544 votes.)

But rights advocates say that the use of legislation against civil society, to stifle their work at the grassroots level, is a more subtle but no less effective way for governments to hold onto power by neutralizing potential sources of pushback and opposition.

Laws passed in 2015, when Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, require nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to get permission from the Ministry of Interior, which oversees state security, potentially exposing personnel to government surveillance. Human Rights Watch said then that the new regulations were “an invitation to arbitrary use of power” and would “put at risk any international organization whose work exposes government failures.” International NGOs must clear all activities with the ministry and operate only on specific issues in approved areas. Other legal provisions, such as regulations to comply with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirements to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, have also been used against groups supporting rights.

Pakistan had been on and off the FATF “gray list” for years as it struggled to comply with global standards to deal with terrorism financing and money laundering. It came off that list in late 2022. However, charities can be caught in the net of counterterrorism and anti-money laundering crackdowns as they often rely on the same means of funding as terrorist organizations—for instance, door-to-door collections or transfers through the informal hawala system, as well as widespread use of volunteers who don’t go through background checks. This makes the NGOs vulnerable to having these regulations used against them, sector sources said.

Protesters denounce the arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan outside the Lahore High Court on Aug. 7. ARIF ALI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Protesters denounce the arrest of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan outside the Lahore High Court on Aug. 7. ARIF ALI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

“In the name of terrorism, all the financial systems for supporting nongovernment organizations and international donors have gone out of Pakistan, and so most civil society is out now,” said human rights lawyer Zia Ahmed Awan. The authorities targeted groups supporting human and women’s rights, judicial independence, media freedom, religious tolerance, poverty alleviation, and citizens’ interests more generally. “There is nothing left to push back,” he said.

In 2017, when brothers Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif’s party held sway, almost 20 international NGOs, mostly working on human rights issues, received expulsion orders. Domestic rights advocates don’t have the luxury of leaving. Many have tried to hunker down below the parapet, while the authorities continue to dismantle the underpinnings of democracy. Pressure is enormous, sector sources said. Bureaucratic processes like security clearances are required at every strand of government from the district to federal levels, including the Intelligence Bureau and Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

“They come to your office, they monitor, they check what are you doing, why are you doing it,” said Naveed Walter, president of Human Rights Focus Pakistan. “They consider we are against the state when we speak for our rights.” After a speech to the U.N. Security Council in 2019, in which he addressed freedom of worship and violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, Walter said he was visited by “multiple agencies” and told he had maligned the state. He briefly left the country for his own safety.

Recent sectarian riots in Jaranwala, not far from his office in Faisalabad, demonstrated the need for civil society activism, Walter said—and what can happen in its absence. Rumor that a Quran had been damaged led to riots, in which churches and homes of Christians were torched and looted. More than 100 people were arrested, including two Christian men accused of blasphemy, which can carry a death sentence. Religious violence is not new in predominantly Sunni Muslim Pakistan, where Hindus, Shiite and Ahmadi Muslims, and Christians are regularly targeted, with hundreds falsely accused of blasphemy over the years, and, reportedly, many killed.

Human rights advocates said activism and policy could help prevent regular explosions of religious violence. “But there is no policy, no action, no mechanism on the ground. There is no change to the mindset of the people,” said Walter, whose organization advocates for religious tolerance. “Sometimes the politicians and people in power will use religious fanatics and extremism in order to boost their popularity and win votes, so it is not in their interests to educate people, to inculcate in them a tolerance for others.”

It’s a long-running theme in Pakistani politics, dating back to the creation of the country, hived off of India in 1947, but it reached a nadir when strongman Gen. Zia-ul-Haq took power in a 1977 coup and ushered in a regime based on religious nationalism that established a culture of repression that continues today.

But the repression takes different forms. Members of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party accuse Shehbaz Sharif’s administration of colluding with the military in a litany of human rights abuses. According to an internal PTI document, seen by Foreign Policy, these include “illegal arrests, detention, custodial torture and victimization of political workers; suppression of media and attacks on freedom of expression; and even violation of the dignity and privacy of political workers.”

But that’s nothing entirely new: As Sharif has weaponized the law against Khan, Khan did against his own predecessor, Sharif’s brother Nawaz, who did it to his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, and on and on. And the net gets wider. Following the detention of Imaan Mazari, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, on Aug. 20, after comments she made about the military at a political rally, Pakistan’s caretaker minister for information and broadcasting, Murtaza Solangi, told Foreign Policy that while freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed, “it comes with limitations.” She was released, then immediately arrested again on unspecified charges. Solangi said that Mazari has no connection to Khan’s PTI, though her mother, Shireen Mazari, was the minister of human rights in his government. The mother was arrested in May 2022 over an old land dispute, which she said was politically motivated. After numerous additional arrests, she announced her intention to leave the PTI and retire from “active politics” in May of this year.

The crackdown on civil society leads in many cases to self-censorship, activists said. Alongside the taboo of freedom of worship, for instance, NGOs working in the health sector must be careful to avoid women’s rights, as maternal care might veer into “reproductive rights, contraception, and women’s rights, and that becomes problematic,” said a researcher with a U.S. monitoring group who asked for anonymity due to concerns for his physical safety. “It’s like the media—there is direct and indirect censorship. Effectively, the security state doesn’t let anyone work on anything.”

“There’s a very clear pattern of the dismantling of the correctives of democracy,” the researcher said. “It has always been difficult, and it is hard to say if what is happening now is unprecedented, but it has certainly escalated and intensified in recent months and years.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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