Pakistan’s Crackdown Is “Unprecedented,” Says Imran Khan

Pakistan’s Crackdown Is “Unprecedented,” Says Imran Khan

Pakistan’s Crackdown Is “Unprecedented,” Says Imran Khan

In an exclusive interview with The Nation, the embattled former prime minister alleges that American interference was behind his ouster and excoriates the Pakistani ruling coalition.

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On May 9, 2023, former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan was apprehended on the premises of the Islamabad High Court by paramilitary troops under the direction of the Pakistan Army. The arrest, which a number of experts have called illegal, sparked a wave of protests throughout the country, some of which became violent when Khan’s supporters began attacking military installations. The events were not dissimilar to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol—with the distinction that, unlike Donald Trump, who only lost an election, Khan was publicly and violently arrested.

In response, the army, which has termed the events Pakistan’s 9/11, unleashed a brutal crackdown on Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), that has still not abated. Thousands of party workers and activists have been thrown in jail, more than a hundred politicians from the party have been forced to defect, and the media has been banned from mentioning Khan’s name. Meanwhile, a whole host of court cases have been registered against Khan, including murder and terrorism charges as well as accusations of corruption.

The highest-profile case among these is the one that relates to the Al-Qadir Trust. According to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB)—a controversial organization that was strengthened by military dictator Gen. Pervaiz Musharraf after the coup of 1999 and has been used almost exclusively to coerce politicians—Khan deprived Pakistan’s treasury of approximately £190 million when he reached a quid pro quo arrangement with the notorious real estate developer Malik Riaz. In late 2019, while Khan was serving as prime minister, the National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom confiscated this sum from Riaz’s British account. The NAB alleges that Imran Khan permitted Riaz to apply this money to pay off a debt unconnected to the case—in effect allowing him to lose the money twice—and that as a reward for signing off on this deal, a trust registered in the names of Khan and his wife received 57 acres of land some 25 miles from the federal capital, Islamabad.

Khan is also accused in a separate case of selling state gifts illegally. The case against Khan is based on the technicality that he sold gifts given to him while he was prime minister, and then paid the Gifts Treasury [Toshakhana] a portion of his earnings instead of depositing the items in the treasury first, as the rules stipulate. Recent disclosures have shown, however, that hundreds of politicians were benefiting from lax regulations over the retention of state gifts.

Conviction in any one of these cases would lead to Khan’s disqualification from contesting in the next general election, which must take place by the end of this year. Though there is no way of knowing for certain, it is widely expected that were he allowed to stand in a free and fair election, he would win enough seats to form the next government. But with the powerful military establishment having rendered him persona non grata, Khan’s prospects appear bleak. This represents an astonishing reversal from the run-up to the last general election, when the generals, then strongly supportive of Khan’s candidacy, used all their might to suppress his political rivals.

On June 17, 2023, I sat down with Imran Khan for an in-depth conversation. Over the course of this exclusive interview, Khan repeated the extraordinary allegation that the United States of America was behind his ouster, questioned America’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law, disputed the accusations of corruption that have been leveled against him, and addressed his ongoing feud with the Pakistan Army. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and includes occasional annotations for context.

—Hasan Ali

Hasan Ali: I want to begin by asking you to give an overview of what’s been happening since May 9.

Imran Khan: Well, actually, it started before May 9. It actually started May 25 last year, and that’s when we first had this taste of things to come. I mean, at that time we thought it was a one-off. We had done a long march, and remember, the Pakistan Democratic Movement [PDM] parties [the dominant part of the current coalition government] had done three long marches without us ever stopping them. So we were doing our long march, and that is when we first had a taste of things to come, because two days before, they marched into people’s homes, they picked people up in the middle of the night, they raided thousands of homes before the march, and then they picked up young people, their children, if they could not find the people they were looking for. They abused women, and that was a first for us. They picked up two of our women MPs, one of whom was about 70 years old, and they dragged them to the police station. So we were all shocked by what had happened. We weren’t expecting it.

And then on the day of May 25, we’d never seen so much shelling and rubber bullets. The difference between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and other parties is that we have women participating. We have families participating. And knowing that there were women, children, families, they shelled them, and they beat them up.

HA: When you say “they,” who do you mean? Do you mean the government or the military?

IK: It was both—the Pakistan rangers and the police—but they were being controlled by the military establishment. We know this because the police told us. Our government came back into power [in the provincial government of Punjab] when we won elections in the middle of July. So when these police officers were hauled up, they all said the same thing, that they were being instructed by the military establishment. That was the first time it happened, and then it gradually got worse. Why did it get worse? Because in the middle of July 2022, we won 15 out of 20 seats in Punjab. And then in the other elections in the middle of October, we won seven out of nine seats in the national assembly. So in all, out of 37 by-elections, we won 30.

So rather than the military establishment having removed our party, in this case, the opposite had happened. On April 9, 2022, I was removed; on April 10, massive crowds came out on the streets protesting, which was a shock. They thought it was a bubble, but the party’s popularity kept going up. So when we won the by-elections, then came the assassination attempt on me, because they realized that rather than going down, the party’s popularity was going up. So hence the first assassination attempt on the 3rd of November, and then the next attempt was on the 18th of March. There were two attempts on me. And not just that. When [former head of the Pakistan Army] Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa retired—we thought OK, Bajwa had removed me and so he was not going to allow me to come back by winning the elections. But then the new army chief comes in, and things get even more difficult.

Now we have reached rock bottom. I mean, this, in Pakistan’s history, is unprecedented. What you saw was the beginning, when you were caught up. [Khan is referring to my abduction at the hands of law enforcement on May 9, as recounted in The Nation.] But this was all a planned campaign, because May 9 was a whole setup. It was a planned operation, because, I mean, the way they grabbed me…

The police could have picked me up; they could have waited outside the high court to pick me up—but inside the high court, to beat up everyone, break windows? I mean, they beat up the staff of the high court, and then the way they dragged me into the car. And by the way, the moment I got into the jeep, they were completely civil and polite. So it was almost as if it was done to provoke this feeling, this outrage, which was expected. And then it was illegal, because I was on bail. There was no way they should have picked me up.

NOTE: Khan’s claim that his government was removed by the then–Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa is difficult to prove—but the author has spoken to one senior politician from the PMLN, the majority coalition partner of the current government, who has admitted that the vote of no confidence against Khan in April 2022 was heavily backed by General Bajwa. It is also true that there were sizable demonstrations against Khan’s ouster on the day after his removal.

HA: Mr. Khan, you say this is unprecedented, but to an outside observer, it actually looks like a repeat of the same pattern that has dogged this country’s history ever since it was founded. By that what I mean is that the military picks its favorites, it helps them get into power, and then it gets rid of them when they don’t behave like puppets. And then when the people of Pakistan don’t like this, that party usually becomes more popular and there’s a crackdown. So how is this unprecedented?

IK: Well it’s unprecedented because normally, whenever the military has removed a government, people have distributed sweets and celebrations have taken place. In the nineties, when PMLN and the People’s Party were removed, twice each for corruption, there were celebrations in Pakistan. And when General Musharraf came in [after the coup of 1999], he was hugely popular. I was in the opposition, and I can tell you that the majority of the people supported Musharraf because he came in on an anti-corruption platform. Right at the end it lost popularity, when the lawyers’ movement started, but on the whole his government was popular. And I’m telling you, I was in the opposition, and we found it very difficult to mobilize the people.

Secondly, when my party came into power, people were sick of the tenures of these two parties, these family parties who had been ruling for 30 years, so I came in as a reaction to them. So how was it different this time? The establishment brought back the same people whom they had previously called corrupt. Remember, the reason Musharraf took over in 1999 was corruption. Then the National Accountability Bureau was created, and the first head of NAB, General Amjad, gave us the lowdown on the corruption of these two parties. And then again, when I became prime minister, we were given presentations on their corruption by Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI].

So when I was removed and they were brought back, that is when there was a reaction. It was unprecedented because, for the first time, people reacted to a government being removed. And then it was unprecedented that the army would stand not with the people, but actually stood with the crooks. So in order then to make the public accept rule by the PDM—which, by the elections, the by-election results, and the opinion polls, it is clear that people have rejected—they then use this muscle. They have never used such muscle in Pakistan as far as I can remember.

When General Zia removed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, there were only a few hundred party workers that General Zia put in jail and through the third degree—but never 10,000 people in jail and the entire leadership of a party in jail. And then custodial torture to the extent it has happened, and the total muzzling of the media! Remember, during Musharraf’s martial law, I was in the opposition, and we had access to the media. I could go on television. I wasn’t blocked from TV channels. Today, the media is completely controlled. My name is not allowed to be mentioned. So I’m saying what is happening now is unprecedented.

NOTE: Though General Musharraf made tall claims about wanting to end corruption, the reason he launched a coup in October 1999 was that he had been fired as Army chief of staff while he was on a foreign tour by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Musharraf is alleged to have decided to breach the line of control and launch the war in Kargil without authorization from Prime Minister Sharif, a decision that led to a complete breakdown in civil-military relations. General Musharraf’s popularity is impossible to ascertain, since he never stood as a candidate in any general election. During Khan’s tenure, most of the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s top tier leadership, including Khan’s predecessor Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and his successor Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, were jailed for long periods. It is true, however, that the scale of persecution of Khan’s party activists and supporters far eclipses the persecution of PMLN and PPP activists during Khan’s premiership.

HA: Well, you talk about the media and about how this is unprecedented. Certainly, when we read about Operation Searchlight [an operation carried out by the Pakistan Army in March 1971 against Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh], that happened on an even bigger scale and led to the breakup of the country. We didn’t have a free media or social media when the 1977 and 1999 martial laws happened, so it’s difficult to say for certain, but I do take your point that it’s been extremely oppressive.

On the media, I do want to ask, during this government’s time in office, one prominent journalist who had been a supporter of yours, Arshad Sharif, was murdered under mysterious circumstances in Kenya. Another political commentator who was supportive of you, Imran Riaz, has now been missing for over a month. Other journalists have been forced to flee the country. Now I want to ask you, who is responsible for the targeted persecution of journalists? Is it the military or is it the government?

IK: The military. It’s the military establishment. Look, in my time, there were three or four cases of journalists being picked up. Each time, it was the establishment [a euphemism for the Pakistan Army] who thought that they had crossed the line. One journalist, Matiullah Jan, I remember. When we found out, we immediately had him released the next day. But it was the tail end of the War on Terror, and during the War on Terror, the establishment view was that they were losing soldiers and soldiers were giving their lives, so therefore they took a bigger space. But that was nothing compared to what’s happening now. As far as my own government goes, I had problems with one journalist who slandered me and said I had done something illegal. I took him to court and I, as prime minister, could not have him convicted because the case just went on and on.

So my government never took any steps against journalists. There were three or four instances where the establishment moved against them. Maybe [prime-time television anchor] Hamid Mir said something and was taken off [Pakistan’s most watched news channel] Geo TV for a while. Maybe [television journalist] Talat Hussain. It wasn’t because they were attacking us or anything, it was because of the establishment. But that was nothing compared to what’s happening right now. I mean, the scale—there’s just no comparison.

NOTE: In fact, there were many more instances of journalists being persecuted by the state than those mentioned here. The author has spoken to more than a dozen journalists who felt they had been victimized by the state during the Khan premiership. The media watchdog organization Freedom Network estimates that there were at least 86 cases of attacks and violations against media practitioners between May 2021 and Khan’s removal from office in April 2022.

HA: I mean, look, journalists didn’t start getting beaten up or abducted during your tenure, that’s for certain. Saleem Shahzad, for instance, was killed way before that, when the People’s Party was in office, and no one accuses them. But something I do remember quite vividly from your time in office is that PTI social media used to be quite supportive of this kind of thing. There’s one journalist called Asma Shirazi, and your social media team was creating trends calling her a prostitute in a hijab. Others were called “envelope journalists”—as in, journalists who were taking money from the then opposition—and it did just seem at that time like you didn’t seem to mind it [the persecution of critical journalists] very much as a party.

IK: Well, look, there was this thing called the Prevention of Electronic Acts ordinance. It was passed by Nawaz Sharif when PMLN was in power, I think around 2017, and we tightened it up. The whole reason was because of social media. The reason was that social media was out of control, and not just they suffered. I mean, the things that were written about me and my family? They crossed all lines. So the idea was that we would try to rein them in and have some responsibility—especially with fake news. My main problem was fake news. Something would come up on social media and then the media would pick it up. I thought it was a real issue, and I think it’s probably an issue all over the world right now, because social media is a relatively new phenomenon. So we wanted some kind of control over it. But there was a strong reaction from the media, and in the end we couldn’t get it through.

HA: So, orchestrated trends against journalists—do you deny that orchestrated trends were created by your teams against these journalists?

IK: Look, social media, you should know… for instance, I now have 19 million followers on my social media. How would I know? It’s impossible for me to know how they feel. In the past, something I would have done that they would not agree with, they’d turn around and attack me. We can own what was the official line, but what happens on social media, I’m afraid, is out of control. Anyone who has a phone has a voice now.

HA: You’ve called this government imported. Who has imported them? Do you still believe it was the CIA?

IK: Look, I won’t say it was the CIA, or who was it. I’ll just give you the facts. The American under-secretary of state [Donald Lu] has an official meeting with the Pakistani ambassador in Washington, Asad Majeed. There were notetakers on both sides, and the cipher I get, which is a coded message sent to the foreign office from your ambassadors, says very clearly that, look, there’s a vote of no confidence coming, and unless Imran Khan is removed in that no-confidence move, there’ll be consequences for Pakistan. So the prime minister reads this message. What is he supposed to understand from that? And then before that, my intelligence bureau is sending me details about our backbenchers being invited to the American embassy in the two months prior to this move. We keep seeing our backbenchers going to the American embassies, and, ironically, they were the first ones to jump ship once the [no-confidence] move came in. So this is a fact. But what subsequently we discover is that our own army chief had hired [former Pakistani ambassador to the US] Husain Haqqani. He was paid $30,000 by our government, and we don’t know this. He was paid under the foreign office. I didn’t know this. I only discovered this when our government was removed, and FARA [Foreign Agents Registration Act]—which is in the US and registers all lobbies and foreign organizations—in the FARA accounts, it came out that Husain Haqqani was paid $30,000 when I was prime minister. And then there was a Haqqani tweet which said that General Bajwa was pro-America and Imran Khan was anti-America. So he was effectively lobbying against me.

NOTE: The FARA database shows a payment of $30,000 made by former CIA officer, now lobbyist Robert Grenier to Husain Haqqani, but the “Foreign Principal” listed on the disclosure, Iftikhar Durrani, is a member of Khan’s political party and presumably wasn’t engaging a lobbyist to work against his own leader. The Nation reached out to former Ambassador Haqqani for comment, who informed us that he had initiated legal proceedings against Khan. “Like all conspiracy theorists and demagogues, Imran Khan does not feel the need to offer any evidence of allegations he makes,” Haqqani added for the record.

HA: The interesting thing is, we have also seen that you’ve been doing quite a bit of lobbying of US congresspeople. There was an audio leaked of you speaking to Maxine Waters, asking her to condemn human rights abuses that were happening in Pakistan. Now, if that had been a different party, would you not have accused them of trying to get a foreign country’s politicians to interfere in the domestic affairs in Pakistan? I’m just saying it seems a bit hypocritical.

IK: Hasan, look. Let’s sort of break it down. Where in the world do you have an official of the American State Department telling your ambassador to get rid of your prime minister? Now tell me—is this a normal occurrence?

HA: I’ve never been in power, so I don’t know.

IK: No no, but Hasan, just ask yourself this question. Would a New Zealand ambassador dare to send a message from an American official, an official message, that they should remove the New Zealand prime minister? I mean, what do you think would be the reaction? So it is unheard of.

HA: But that was not my question. My question was about your lobbying and whether or not that was hypocritical.

IK: Look, I’m trying to make you understand something. There’s a big difference in this, which was a fact. I put it in front of our cabinet, I put it in front of our National Security Council, which then issued a démarche to the US for meddling in the internal affairs of Pakistan. It was an official response given by the Pakistani government to the American Embassy in Islamabad, and in Washington. And this went to the parliament, and I said to the chief justice—because after that cipher, the next day there was a vote of no-confidence, so therefore clearly all I wanted was a probe into this—I asked the chief justice [to] probe this, because this means that the no-confidence motion is not homegrown. This is obviously foreign interference, which was acknowledged. And then, Shehbaz Sharif, when he became prime minister, they again held a National Security Council meeting. They called up the ambassador, Asad Majeed, who reiterated in that meeting, when I was no longer the prime minister, he repeated the same thing, and it was the ambassador who said that the US should be démarched for interfering. So this is a fact.

Now let me come to this human rights thing. Look, I have never asked for help from anyone. I have always told them that Pakistan’s internal affairs will be sorted out by the people of Pakistan. But what I have said to everyone is: Are human rights, democracy, rule of law—are they only restricted to when you want to talk about Chinese excesses in Hong Kong, or the Uyghurs or Russians, or are these the universal values that you preach? If you preach these values, in Pakistan, our democracy is being dismantled right now. Our democracy is being rolled back. All human rights, fundamental rights, are being violated. So should they not be speaking about it, as they should with any country which is going through this? It’s not about personal support. I’m saying I don’t want any support from you. All I want is condemnation of human rights abuses.

HA: There have been a number of cases registered against you and some of them are clearly nonsensical. It’s clear for instance that you’re not a murderer, and no one is going to believe that you’re a terrorist either. Similarly, on the state gifts case, I don’t see that what you were doing was very different to what every other politician in the country seems to have been doing. I do want to ask you about the Al-Qadir Trust case, though. That on the surface looks like a quid pro quo. Could you explain exactly what happened there? Because it looks strange on the surface.

IK: OK, let me explain it to you. Even the gifts thing: For 70 years, the law has been very straightforward. Any gift you get, you give it to the Toshakhana; they evaluate the gift, and you have the right: Do you want to pay a certain amount to get the gift, or do you want to leave it in the Toshakhana, where it then gets auctioned? This has been the law for 70 years. So what did I do different? In my case, the road below my house was all broken, so rather than use the taxpayers’ money, I used the proceeds from that gift and so on.

But this Al-Qadir case, you must understand, I wanted to build a special university creating leadership in Pakistan based on the teachings of our Holy Prophet (PBUH), who was the greatest leader ever. Malik Riaz offered that he would build the university, because he does a lot of charity work, but for me, what was important was that he has the best mobilization equipment and he’s the best land developer in Pakistan. So it was the speed at which he builds. It wasn’t the money, because I collect, for Shaukat Khanum Memorial Hospital, 9 billion rupees annually from charity. This university—the whole project is not worth a billion rupees. I have much bigger projects. So it was the fact that he does land developing very quickly—speed is the thing. He offered to build it, fine. He sponsored it.

Now, you must remember the dates. He had bought the land in December 2018. I did the stone laying of the university in May 2019. In December 2019, six months later, this is what came before the cabinet. The National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom froze the accounts of Malik Riaz in England for suspicious transactions, not money laundering. For suspicious transactions, they had his account frozen. Malik Riaz does a deal with the NCA, and because the Supreme Court of Pakistan had fined him a certain amount of money, he wanted that money to be put into the Supreme Court’s account. Now the cabinet is asked this question: Either you keep this agreement between Malik Riaz and the National Crime Agency secret, and the money—190 million pounds—is repatriated to Pakistan. And confidential, just from the cabinet. [Khan is claiming that one of the conditions of the agreement signed by the National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom and Malik Riaz was that the agreement remain sealed, or else the money would remain in the UK.] It could be opened by a court of law. It could be opened by the National Accountability Bureau. But it needs to be kept confidential in the cabinet meeting, because that goes public. If you don’t keep this confidential, then you will have to go to court in England. It’s a civil case in which you’ll have to prove that this money is money laundered from Pakistan. It would have taken the next five or six years. The law minister tells us that we have lost $100 million in litigation without success, so if we do not prove it is money laundered from Pakistan, it does not come back to Pakistan. Now, any cabinet would have taken the same decision, because £190 million were coming to Pakistan, and then once they were in Pakistan, we always had the chance to decide that this was money laundered, and we could go to England and have that case done.

The National Accountability Bureau is now saying that I benefited monetarily from this deal. How is Al-Qadir trust of any benefit to me? The trust itself says that no trustee can have any financial benefit from it at all. The land and everything else belongs to the trust. It’s like I’m benefiting from Shaukat Khanum. How can you benefit from a trust?

NOTE: The Nation has reviewed two documents, one of which appears to show that the memorandum of understanding between real estate developer Malik Riaz and Khan’s wife, Bushra Bibi, predates the NCA’s confiscation of £190 million from Riaz’s British account by about nine months. The other document, dated March 24, 2021, and signed by Bushra Bibi, shows an acknowledgement that Riaz donated approximately 57 acres of land to the Al-Qadir Trust. In any case, the timeline suggested by Khan does not necessarily eliminate the possibility of a quid pro quo.

HA: I just want to give you the opportunity to clear something up. You will have seen that in the domestic press and in the international press, it has been reported that the reason the current army chief, Gen. Asim Munir, was asked to resign when you were in office and he was serving as director general of Inter-Services Intelligence is that he had come to you saying that your wife was involved in corruption. Can you just clarify why you asked him to resign when you were prime minister?

IK: First of all, he never said this to me. This is absolute nonsense. Never did he say anything about my wife’s corruption. I can elaborate on this—because there was a huge game behind this—but later on.

HA: Please do elaborate on it, Mr. Khan, because this is an accusation that gets repeated again and again.

IK: Let me just say—this is absolutely incorrect. There is no truth in it that he ever, ever came to me and said there was some corruption on my wife. If there was any corruption, they’ve been looking everywhere. Anything and everything about me has been turned upside down. All they can find is that my wife is a trustee in Al-Qadir trust. I mean, a trustee! What financial benefit does a trustee get? That’s all they’ve come up with, and remember, they’ve tried everything.

The reason why I won’t give you the details [about dismissing the army chief] is that the man has gone berserk right now with the sort of oppression that’s going on here. But it’s just that I came to a conclusion after a year that his style of working was… I just wanted him changed. But I think he took it very badly.

HA: Mr. Khan, with the deepest respect, if you don’t tell me why you got rid of him then this question will keep lingering, because we won’t get your side of the story.

IK: Hasan, look, let’s just clear one thing. Why haven’t these corruption cases against my wife come out? The only thing that’s come out is that she’s a trustee in Al Qadir trust, which means nothing, which means no financial benefit.

There was a huge campaign that went on. They couldn’t find anything on me. There’s this thing our establishment does—it always has files on people. You know, people who have been coerced to leave us, a lot of my senior members, they had files on them. So this is an old thing. They keep files on people. And because there was nothing on me, they tried to make out that my wife’s adopted daughter, Farah, that there was something on her. But so far—in 14 months—if she was corrupt, they must have brought out something against her. The allegation went that Farah was the front person and she was making money for postings and transfers. I mean, it is so ridiculous. If you want to make money, would you make money from posting and transfers when, on a deal like legitimizing one of these housing societies, you get billions of rupees?

The reason I’m not telling you why I couldn’t work with the current army chief is that he’s already extremely vindictive right now and it will just increase the oppression on my people. That’s all.

HA: You reproached some journalists and human rights organizations for not being more critical of the crackdown on your party. So I asked some of these people why they weren’t being more critical, and they said a number of things. But one of the things that came up a lot was they said that Mr. Khan isn’t actually against the establishment. He doesn’t actually want to cut down the military’s outsize role in politics, he just wants to be in power again. Will you commit that if you ever become prime minister again, you will send the military outside the sphere of Pakistani politics where it has been meddling for the last 70-plus years?

IK: First of all, I have a problem with these human rights organizations. Imagine saying something as ridiculous as that! They’re not criticizing human rights abuses going on. I mean, 10,000 people are in jail, and you yourself have seen the way they have been crammed in jail. They pick people up in the middle of the night.

HA: Children too, by the way.

IK: Children too. And then they smash and vandalize the houses. They robbed my house! When I was not here, they broke down my front door. My wife was here all alone and they grabbed everything. And whatever they could lay their hands on, they took. And they beat up everyone. They took the cook, they took the poor gardener away, and this is what they’re doing right now.

How do they [human rights organizations] know what I think? How do they know that I’m only interested in getting into power? I mean, when you’re talking about free and fair elections—never did I say that I wanted the establishment to help me win the elections. All I’m saying is that I want free and fair elections in Pakistan. Even this narrative that in 2018 the army made me win the election is absolute rubbish, because the moment the election was over and the opposition said there was rigging, I said, open the election. In 2013, when the establishment helped Nawaz win, we only asked for four out of 133 constituencies to be reopened. They refused.

NOTE: A Judicial Commission chaired by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Nasirul Mulk investigated claims of rigging in the 2013 election and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest systematic rigging.

HA: My last question to you is this, then: How will you get out of this? How will you salvage what is clearly now a wreckage of your party? It’s clearly been dismantled in a very ferocious way. How will you salvage this situation?

IK: What they’re trying to do is dismantle the biggest party in Pakistan—our ratings are more than 70 percent—and it just cannot be done. They can only do it by destroying every institution of the state, which they are doing right now. They have left the judiciary completely impotent; they are using the police to do their dirty work; they are using the election commission to somehow help these PDM parties to win. The Federal Investigation Agency, the National Accountability Bureau—both are being used to dismantle one party.

But you see, a party doesn’t get dismantled because a few of your top leadership abandon you. It doesn’t even get dismantled if some of your members of parliament leave you. The only way a party gets dismantled is if you lose your vote bank. Today PTI’s vote bank is larger than any other party in Pakistan’s history. West Pakistan, I’m talking about. In East Pakistan, Mujibur Rahman had a huge vote bank. Today, the PTI ticket will win. Whoever we give tickets to [for nomination] will win. All they are doing is, they are causing fear and people are terrorized. But the anger on the ground is just seething. Whenever they announce elections, whoever PTI gives tickets to will win. So my answer is that the establishment has learned nothing from history. In East Pakistan, they did all these things and Awami League swept the elections [in 1970]. Whenever they have done this political engineering, it has come at a huge cost to the country, and they are trying to do the same again right now. They did it to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s People’s Party, by Zia-ul-Haq, when he did it through non-party elections. It set Pakistani democracy back, because ideology went out and money came in when Nawaz Sharif was manufactured by General Zia. What they’re now trying to do—in my opinion, whatever they do they will fail.

You’re saying “pick up the pieces,” but we don’t have to do anything. We just have to wait this out, because what is happening right now is unsustainable. I know they’re going to put me in jail, and I think this oppression that is going on is to make sure that this time, when they put me in jail, there’s hardly any street movement. So I’m expecting to be put in jail in the next 10 days or two weeks, but that’s not going to stop the party from winning. Whenever the elections will come, PTI will win, Inshallah.

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