An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan handed over 16 supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan to the army Thursday for prosecution in military tribunals for their alleged roles in violent protests sparked by his recent short-lived arrest.
The court in the eastern city of Lahore ruled the charges against the suspects “are exclusively liable to be inquired, investigated and triable by the military authorities in court martial.” It directed city jail authorities “to hand over the custody of the accused” to the relevant military officer “for further proceedings.”
The 16 suspects include a former provincial lawmaker of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, the country’s largest.
Pakistan has rounded up thousands of people, including women, in a countrywide crackdown in connection with the several days of PTI-led nationwide protests.
The agitation erupted on May 9, when the popular 70-year-old opposition leader was violently taken into custody by paramilitary forces on corruption charges from outside a courtroom in the capital, Islamabad. The Supreme Court outlawed Khan’s arrest two days later.
Protesters in parts of Pakistan stormed the public and military property, with some setting fire to the residence of a top army commander in Lahore amid allegations the security institution was behind the arrest.
The army chief, General Asim Munir, swiftly announced that those involved in attacks against his institution would be brought to justice through military courts.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s cabinet subsequently endorsed the decision, despite demands by rights groups not to try civilians in military tribunals.
Khan and his party leaders have condemned the violence against military installations, alleging military intelligence agencies infiltrated the arsonists to justify the crackdown on his political party. The military says it has collected “irrefutable evidence” against arsonists.
On Thursday, the cricket star-turned-politician denounced the decision to try his party members in military courts, saying that “the full force of state terror” had been unleashed against the PTI “to dismantle the party” on the pretext of arson.
“Over 10,000 PTI workers and supporters in jail, including senior leadership and some facing custodial torture,” Khan wrote on Twitter.
Pakistani authorities have recently released some of the senior PTI leaders from custody after they announced they were either quitting the party or politics, a move Khan says stemmed from custodial torture and pressure by the military to isolate him.
Critics have long opposed the prosecution of civilians in military courts, saying they deny citizens the right to a fair trial because proceedings are held in secrecy and even family members are not allowed to attend them.
The army officer-run tribunals are exclusively used to try military personnel and those condemned as state enemies.
Amnesty International called on Pakistan Thursday to immediately reverse its decision and try the suspects in the country’s civilian judicial system, using ordinary criminal laws commensurate with the offense.
“We have documented a catalog of human rights violations stemming from trying civilians in military courts in Pakistan, including flagrant disregard for due process, a lack of transparency, and coerced confessions,” the global watchdog said.
Khan’s party said Thursday that authorities had not restored internet service around his Zaman Park residence in Lahore since Wednesday and he “is being subjected to a virtual house arrest” with his home cordoned off by police.
A PTI spokesman said that telecommunication authorities had abruptly cut off the internet connection on Wednesday, shortly before Khan was set to join an online meeting with several British politicians to brief them on alleged human rights abuses against his party. The government has not commented on the allegations but residents in the area have confirmed suspension of internet service.
Conservative member of parliament Sara Britcliffe was among the attendees. She took to Twitter to criticize Pakistani authorities for cutting off the internet. She wrote that she was “extremely concerned by the deteriorating economic, political and security situation” in Pakistan.
A parliamentary vote of no-confidence removed Khan from power in April 2022, nearly four years into his coalition government. He accused the military and Sharif of being behind what he condemned as an illegal vote. He has since held massive countrywide rallies to press for early elections.
Since his ouster, Khan remains embroiled in more than 100 legal cases, ranging from corruption and terrorism to sedition and blasphemy. He rejects all the charges as politically motivated and an attempt by the military to disqualify him from the elections scheduled for the fall.