ISLAMABAD - Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the government Tuesday of unleashing a 'reign of terror' on his party to keep it out of the elections and banning the country's mainstream media from reporting on abuses against his supporters.
Khan tweeted the allegations amid a crackdown on his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, the country's largest political force. Authorities have arrested thousands of PTI supporters, along with former ministers and lawmakers, amid widespread allegations of abuse and torture against detainees.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's government has confirmed apprehending some 5,000 people, including women, in connection with recent, violent PTI-led protests sparked by the short-lived arrest of Khan on corruption charges. Dozens of detainees have been handed over to the army for trials in military courts for allegedly ransacking defense installations and murals during protests on May 9.
'Since the mainstream media has now been completely muzzled through social media, everyone must be made aware of the reign of terror unleashed on Pakistan's biggest party so that it can be kept out of the elections,' Khan said Tuesday on Twitter.
FILE - Security personnel move towards Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party activists and supporters of former Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan protesting against the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar on May 10, 2023.
Police and government officials deny any coercion of Khan's supporters or allegations of rights abuses.
The 70-year-old opposition leader has long dominated television screens in Pakistan for being the most popular national politician, according to polls, with his speeches and rallies getting constant coverage.
Observers, however, have noted coverage of Khan and those of his party leaders has lately disappeared from all mainstream news channels; nor is there any reporting of alleged rights abuses against detained PTI members. Instead, government news conferences, speeches, and statements denouncing Khan and his supporters as 'miscreants' and 'hatemongers' are often broadcast.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, or PEMRA, has ordered all television channels not to give a platform to 'zealots' and 'hatemongers' linked to the rioting. The directive did not refer directly to Khan or his party.
Khan has openly accused the powerful Pakistani military of being behind the crackdown and media ban to dismantle his party.
VOA has reached out to the military and the PEMRA for comment on Khan's allegations.
'It is completely the establishment,' Khan told the Reuters news agency over the weekend.
'Establishment obviously means the military establishment because they are really now openly - I mean, it's not even hidden now - they're just out in the open.'
Khan has alleged that the violence against defense properties was the work of 'saboteurs' and the military was using it as a 'pretext' for the crackdown on his party. He has called for an independent inquiry into the violence to determine who is responsible.
On Monday, Sharif rejected as 'disinformation' and 'plain misrepresentation' Khan's assertions about events that followed last month's violence.
'Let me put the context right: what his party did on May 9 was a brazen attack on the State of Pakistan, with malafide intent and sinister objectives. No country in the world would tolerate such an attempt at destroying its integrity,' the incumbent prime minister said on Twitter.
Sharif said his government was dealing with 'the culprits' under the law and promised no rights violation would take place.
The opposition leader himself faces dozens of legal challenges on allegations ranging from corruption and sedition to terrorism and murder. He rejects the charges, saying they are meant to disqualify him from politics.
The prestigious English-language DAWN newspaper, in an editorial responding to the PEMRA directive, urged the government regulator to revisit its decision and desist from silencing the political opposition.
'It is apparent that these instructions have come from powerful quarters and are a thinly disguised warning to the media to stay in line,' the editorial said, in an indirect reference to the Pakistani military.
Dozens of former federal and provincial ministers and lawmakers have publicly abandoned Khan or quit politics altogether, praised the military, and condemned the protests, paving the way for them to leave jail and avoid any prosecution. They all appeared to be reading from the same script but denied they were quitting the party under any pressure, claims critics dismissed.
'People leave jail, hold a press conference, condemn the incidents of arson, and announce quitting the party. Even if you have not been subjected to physical coercion or pressure, this is not something that's being done voluntarily,' said Hina Jilani, the head of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, HRCP, at a news conference in Islamabad last week.
She also accused the military of being behind what Jilani called 'political engineering' and criticized the government for agreeing to put civilians on trial in military courts.
Khan's critics attribute his rise to power after the 2018 election to his close ties with the military, and he was removed from power in April 2022 through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence after falling out with the institution.
Critics and analysts say the crackdown replicates past military-led campaigns used to break other political parties in Pakistan, where no elected prime minister has ever completed a full term since independence.
Khan has demanded snap elections through dozens of public rallies, claiming, without offering any evidence, that his ouster was orchestrated by the military in collusion with Sharif and the United States, charges Washington and Islamabad reject. Authorities have not allowed the deposed leader or anyone from his party to hold a public rally following the violence last month.
Generals have ruled Pakistan for more than three decades through direct military coups against elected governments and have held sway over the country even when they are not in power since it gained independence from Britain in 1947.