Rawalpindi, Pakistan—On Tuesday evening, I was walking through downtown Rawalpindi toward General Headquarters, the army’s national command center. Earlier that afternoon, former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan had been picked up from Islamabad High Court by the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force controlled by the country’s powerful army. This had prompted thousands of his supporters to take to the streets in a show of protest, and there were reports on social media that military installations, including GHQ, had been attacked. A police statement later claimed that 1,650 protesters were arrested in the Punjab province, a number that is unquestionably short of the reality. I decided to visit the scene to report on what was happening.
The road leading toward the army’s command center was being shelled with tear gas, and by the time I arrived there were no more than a few dozen protesters on the street. Most of them were running in the opposite direction. I tried to ask protesters what was happening, but they ran past me. Foolishly, I assumed that as a member of the press just trying to do my job, I had nothing to fear from either Khan’s supporters or law enforcement. I was wrong.
I turned around to find myself staring down the barrel of a gun. An officer wearing the brown overalls of the Punjab police ordered me to keep walking. I had taken only a few steps, past a little bend in the road, when a plainclothes security officer ran toward me and struck me across the face. He dragged me by the collar into the middle of a group of law enforcement officers, some uniformed, others not, and they proceeded to administer a beating that I’m not likely to forget for the rest of my life. A corpulent man in plainclothes, who looked uncannily like the clown from the nu-metal band Slipknot, smashed a wooden stick against the side of my skull.
“I’m a journalist,” I shouted. “I’m here to cover the protests.”
He responded with a reference to my mother’s anatomy and struck me on the hand.
A cascade of violence followed. Uniformed policemen attacked me with the butts of their rifles before whisking me into the back of a police van with four other detainees, all of them young men in their 20s. As I was being shoved into the vehicle, the blows continued to fall from behind me. An officer sitting in the back of the van ordered me to sit on the floor instead of the seat.
“I’m a journalist,” I repeated. “I have nothing to do with the protests.”
“Shut up, motherfucker,” he said. “I saw you chanting slogans in support of Imran Khan.”
It was an absurd proposition; I can’t think of a single journalist in the Western press who has been as critical of Khan’s politics. I had scarcely begun to protest when the prisoner to my right told me I was bleeding. In the madness of the moment, I hadn’t even noticed.
Khan was being arrested on charges of alleged corruption under the directions of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB)—a controversial organization created by the Pakistan Army that has been used almost exclusively to coerce politicians. The last six prime ministers, including the one currently in office, have all, at one point or another, been arrested by this body, which is currently being headed by a retired three-star general.
The charges against Khan, according to the NAB, relate to the Al-Qadir University Trust Case. Four years ago, when Khan was serving as prime minister, the National Crime Agency of the United Kingdom seized around £190 million from the account of Malik Riaz, a Pakistani real estate tycoon, and returned it to Pakistan. Imran Khan, it is alleged, helped strike a deal through which Riaz was able to use this money to pay off a debt he owed to the supreme court, thereby mitigating the extent of his losses. In return, NAB has alleged that a trust registered in the names of Khan and his wife Bushra received 57 acres of land to build a university in Jhelum.
The night before Khan was picked up, he had publicly accused Faisal Naseer, a two-star general in the Pakistan Army and a top official in Inter-Services Intelligence, of plotting to have him assassinated. Against this backdrop, some of Khan’s supporters are believed to have targeted army infrastructure, with videos emerging of an attack on the corps commander’s residence in Lahore, as well as of protests outside General Headquarters and other military installations.
This represents a remarkable reversal from 2018, when the army—which acts as the country’s deep state—rigged an election to bring Khan and his party to power. With his blessing, they then spent the majority of his tenure victimizing members of the current government. In October 2021, as reported in The Nation, a rift began to widen between Khan and the senior leadership of the Pakistan army, culminating in his removal from office through an army-backed vote of no confidence last year.
Since his removal from office in April 2022, Khan has trained his ire at the generals, accusing them of conspiring with the CIA and corrupt politicians to topple his government. With a crippled economy—year-on-year inflation rose to a record 36.4 percent in April—Khan’s populist message railing against corruption, American imperialism, and military interference has revived his political fortunes and made him a symbol of national resistance.
It is in this context that his supporters took to the streets on Tuesday and attacked the institution they felt was most responsible for Pakistan’s problems: the same military that has been destabilizing Pakistani politics for more than seven decades.
After a short ride in the van, I was taken to the nearest police station and presented to an inspecting officer by the name of Zahid.
“I’m a journalist,” I said. “If you just listen to me and allow me to use my phone, I can prove that to you in a couple of minutes.”
“Was I the one who brought you here?” he asked.
“No, obviously not.”
“Correct. And it isn’t up to me to let you go either.”
By this point I had given up on trying to protest my innocence and was waiting to be charged with whatever crime they thought I’d committed. It was astonishing to discover that, far from wanting to start proceedings, they didn’t even want to know my name.
In fact, this wasn’t an arrest at all. It was the first stage of what can all too often become an enforced disappearance, a form of abduction practiced by the military and intelligence agencies in more remote parts of the country, most notoriously against those perceived to have nationalist aspirations in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The police wanted to know as little as they could about the people they had picked up so that they could deny all knowledge of the operation later. It is for this reason that instead of being placed in jail, those of us arrested that day were taken to a dingy room on the top floor and hidden away under the charge of a custodian. Our phones were confiscated, and we were refused legal representation. None of us were allowed to inform our families about what had happened or to make any other calls. As far as the police officers were concerned, we didn’t exist.
In my two years reporting in Pakistan, I have interviewed a number of journalists who have been tortured, brutalized, or abducted by the state—many during the premiership of Imran Khan. Several of these reporters told me that when my time came, I should take care to keep my wits about me and to assume that I’d be treated in bad faith. It was this piece of advice that saved me. I have made it a habit of carrying two phones when out reporting. One of these—the cheaper one—I had managed to conceal in my sock and used it to send a surreptitious text message to my parents. When they arrived at the police station and demanded to see me, the officers on duty denied all knowledge of my existence.
Later, my father managed to contact a senior government minister whom I had interviewed on several occasions. Horrified, the minister immediately phoned the inspector general of the Punjab police, who subsequently ordered my release. It was only then—some four hours after I was picked up—that anyone bothered to ask me my name.
When I was finally released, the officer on duty asked me to confirm in front of my parents that no harm had come to me once I had entered the police station. He wanted me to admit—influenced, no doubt, by the fact that he had been ordered to let me go by the head of the province’s police force—that I hadn’t been subjected to violence once I became his responsibility. And it’s true that I wasn’t. But I was treated with contempt, with officers controlling my bathroom access and taunting me and another detainee with suggestive insinuations when it was finally granted. And I had been told with apparent glee that it would be days before anyone considered the question of whether to release me.
It was no empty threat. As late as Wednesday night, none of the other young men who had been picked up with me and with whom I had shared a room on Tuesday had been released. I know this because on the morning after my release, I asked Imaan Mazari, a prominent human rights lawyer from Islamabad, to come with me to the police station where they were being held to offer them representation. Instead of allowing us to see them, the officer on duty kept us in a waiting room and had some of his subordinates stand in the doorway to obstruct our view while the others hastily moved the prisoners to a different facility. Once they had successfully taken the prisoners away, the same officers who had forcibly prevented us from going upstairs to the detention room laughingly offered to take us on a tour. They made no effort to conceal their delight at having successfully tricked us.
The four other prisoners were not miscreants. It is possible that some of Khan’s supporters were violent—the footage on social media certainly appears to bear that out—but having spent several hours with these young men, it was clear to me that they were harmless protesters. There was the bakery shop owner who told me how the rising price of imported chocolate meant that he was barely breaking even. There was the aspiring cricket player who said his dreams had been shattered by a serious groin injury. And there were the boys who had been thrown off their motorcycle and beaten so badly they could barely move their heads. I doubt very much that any of their families have been informed about their whereabouts.
This afternoon, the Islamabad High Court granted Imran Khan bail for two weeks. Many of his supporters, some of them minors, are still languishing in illegal detention.