In the past few weeks, Pakistan has been going through arguably the worst period of political and military unrest in decades. Following the extremely heavy-handed public abduction of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in early May, tens of thousands across the country stepped out into the streets to protest. 
During the uproar, a number of military installations and residences were broken into, looted, and damaged.
With Khan’s dramatic detention and subsequent military drive against Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leaders and activists, the army appears to be taking clear strategic steps to permanently remove the 70-year-old from frontline politics.
And while martial law has been ruled out by army leaders, discussions around the possibility of such a step are no longer a far cry. Here are eleven key points that may help explain the volatile situation a little better.
1 | Legislature clashing with judiciary
The Supreme Court of Pakistan — which sentenced the former Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to death in February 1979 and which disqualified a sitting Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, in April 2012, for being in contempt of court — has lost all its power to get decisions implemented.
The current government flatly refused to comply with the decision of a 3-member bench including the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) to hold elections in Punjab, the largest province in the country, in line with the constitution of Pakistan, on 14 May. The government also refused to release Rs. 21 billion to the Election Commission of Pakistan in order to finance the elections. 
Instead, through parliament, the government criticised the CJP for “misconduct and deviating from justice”. The legislature formed a 5-member committee to file a case against the CJP for misconduct. Members of the ruling alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), made fiery speeches in parliament and demanded scrutiny of the financial conduct of the Supreme Court. They also passed an act called the Supreme Court (Practice & Procedure) Bill 2023, which slashes suo moto powers (motions of its own volition without prompt from any other parties) of the CJP.
The ruling political alliance of PDM mounted further pressure on the Supreme Court by holding a rally outside the Supreme Court. The members of the rally, who were mainly party workers of the religious political party, JUI-F, were given free passage by the police to enter the premises of the Supreme Court. The protesters of this anti-judiciary rally chanted inflammatory slogans against judges within earshot of the justices of the court, who were at the time presiding over the very case against which the rally was in progress. This was the worst form of attack on the independence of the highest court of the country launched by none other than the ruling party!  
2 | Crackdown on journalists
The case of Arshad Sharif
Back in 2022, the leading investigative journalist, Arshad Sharif, was a vocal critic of the military’s role in politics, and was also working on a recently released documentary, Behind Closed Doors, which aimed to disclose massive corruption committed by the ruling class of Pakistan.
Sharif had appealed to both the Chief Justice and the Pakistani President in writing as well as in public to ensure his safety, because of having received multiple death threats from undisclosed quarters. Despite managing to flee the country, after being on the run for a few months, he was finally hunted down and brutally murdered on 23 October 2022 in Kajiado, Kenya.
The case of Imran Riaz Khan
Another journalist with over four million subscribers to his YouTube channel, Imran Riaz Khan, who spoke openly in his vlogs against the current regime and its facilitators (the military), also reported having received several death threats.
In a video message which he released only a few days before his expected arrest, he claimed that his family was under constant surveillance and that they were harassed and the family business destroyed by powerful quarters in the country.
He also tried to flee the country, but was arrested by law enforcement agencies on 12 May at Sialkot International Airport. After being released from a couple of days in police custody, he was abducted from outside the court by masked men.
In a plea hearing filed by the journalist’s family, the Chief Justice of Lahore High Court issued orders to the highest ranked police officer, the Inspector General of Punjab Police, to present the journalist before the court. However, the police chief expressed his incapacity and stated that his department were unaware of Khan’s whereabouts.
It’s been over four weeks and Imran Riaz Khan is still missing. A statement by a spokesperson for Reports without Borders has alarmingly indicated that according to their sources, the journalist was tortured while in custody and may have even died. 
The case of Shahid Aslam
In November 2022, an investigative journalist from the renowned BOL News network revealed tax records belonging to the then Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, which showed that his family’s wealth had reportedly increased by Rs. 12 billion (approximately £40 million) in his six years in office.  
Instead of investigating the reported exponential increase of wealth, the authorities arrested the journalist, Shahid Aslam, in January this year for his alleged role in sharing the information. Police were granted two days to interrogate the journalist, but he was later granted bail by the courts.  
The cases of other leading journalists
It must be said that no journalist with an independent voice of dissent has been spared punishment for the crime of doing their duty by the current despotic regime. They have all been been silenced through coercion, arrests, torture, and even death.
Of the few to have successfully fled the authorities are Dr. Moeed Pirzada and Sabir Shakir, two leading journalists who left Pakistan a few months earlier.
Among others, the following are journalists who have bravely remained in Pakistan:
- Ayaz Amir
- Aftab Iqbal
- Sami Ibrahim
- Shahid Aslam
- Siddique Jaan
- Syed Fawad Ali Shah
- Chaudhary Ghulam Hussain.   
4 | Making a mockery of justice
In history’s worst crackdown on political opponents, the entire first- and second-tier leadership of PTI have already been arrested.
And in a ploy to detain political opponents for longer periods, multiple legal cases have been registered against as many PTI members as possible, such that relief given by courts in one case is not sufficient because of other pending cases.
Some have faced torture in custody while others have been detained until they agreed to publicly renounce their affiliation with the PTI. Such people were ordered to hold press conferences following a script allegedly given by the military establishment. The script required the defecting members to condemn the events of 9 May (in response to PTI Chairman Imran Khan’s arrest, party workers and supporters had allegedly attacked military installations and monuments) and to express their solidarity and utmost respect for the armed forces and announce their exit from politics or resignation from PTI membership. 
Dozens of such press conferences have been held over a very short period by PTI leaders. As for (i) the timing of these press conferences; (ii) the similarity of the script used; (iii) and the immediate release of the leaders from police custody following these press conferences, these points have raised suspicion about the transparency of the defections. The ridiculousness of the manner in which these press conferences have been staged has even sparked humour among the public!
In one such press conference held by a prominent PTI leader, Kaneez Fatima, a journalist mocked her and suggested that defecting PTI leaders should use their imagination and change the script given to them. The whole room burst into laughter at this comment and even the defecting PTI leader couldn’t hide her embarrassment through a wry smile.
Even Justice Arbab Tahir of the Islamabad High Court couldn’t stay away from partaking in this mockery, when he remarked in a case against a senior PTI leader, Asad Qaiser, that the former Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan should “…hold a press conference and end this matter”. 
5 | Female social media activists targeted
In the aftermath of 9 May, famous female pro-PTI social media activists have been arrested and reportedly physically harassed in custody.
Perhaps among the biggest names are:
- Aliya Hamza
- Tayyaba Raja
- Sanam Javed Khan.
According to the latest reports, these three activists are still in custody based on charges that are widely believed to be fabricated and flimsy.
The case of Khadija Shah
Another prominent female name is that of Pakistani-US citizen Khadija Shah.
As the granddaughter of the former Chief of Army Staff, General Asif Nawaz Janjua, and the daughter of the former Minister of Finance, Dr. Salman Shah (who also served as a finance advisor to President Musharraf and to the Punjab government during the PTI’s governance up until last year), political analysts and the public did not expect that the current military top brass would arrest one of their own.
However, such is the wrath of the draconian regime, that the law enforcement agencies barged into Shah’s home and harassed domestic assistants and her family members while she escaped through the back door.
Seeing the plight of her family members who are being constantly harassed by the police, she gave herself up after a few days in hiding. In a voice note, she clarified that she had peacefully participated in the protest on 9 May and that her only crime was using her Twitter account to post real-time updates of the protest. 
These women are among many other female PTI workers and supporters that remain under arrest and who reportedly have not been given access to their families and in some cases to their legal teams.
6 | Plethora of cases against Imran Khan and PTI
The former Prime Minster has mentioned several times in his interviews that he has more than 140 legal cases against him, including those of terrorism and sedition. All of these cases were conveniently registered after he was removed from office in April last year. 
It has become a normal occurrence that a political leader released from court is arrested again for other charges soon after they step out of court premises.
In one such dramatic video, the former Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Fawad Chaudhary, could be seen stumbling over when he tried and failed to re-enter the court premises after his release, because he had spotted police waiting to arrest him on his exit.
7 | Police brutality
The indiscriminate and brutal handling during abductions and arrests by law enforcement agencies seems to suggest that terror is being used a weapon to silence the critics. And there have been widespread reports of human rights violations against Khan’s followers.
Protesters, party workers, the political leadership of the PTI, and journalists have been abducted and their families harassed. Reports of torture in police custody have surfaced on social media and cases have emerged where families of the accused, including the elderly and women in particular, have been targeted by law enforcement in a bid to terrorise them.
One such scene went viral when an unarmed female protester was seen being pulled by her hair into a police van. Another involved a disabled girl being pulled out of her wheelchair and violently dragged by her arm onto the ground by police.
In a further case, Zille Shah, a mentally challenged ardent follower of the PTI, made the headlines when he was picked up by police outside Imran Khan’s house in Lahore. He died in custody, allegedly due to police torture. 
Mafia tactics against top PTI leaders
Police departments have essentially used mafia-esque tactics in the high-profile arrests of political leaders such as Usman Dar (former Special Advisor to Prime Minister Imran Khan on Youth Affairs), Shehryar Khan Afridi (former Minister of State for Interior), and a senior senator, Azam Khan Swati.
Their houses were raided and in their absence, the womenfolk, the elderly, and families were harassed and jostled. Several video evidences have emerged over time to prove these claims.
Some key examples
|Azam Khan Swati||Senator. Formerly: Minister of Narcotics Control and Railways; Minister of Parliamentary Affairs||The 74-year-old politician was publicly shamed when a video made without his knowledge and consent revealed a private moment with his wife. The video was leaked by unknown sources. He wept at a press conference when talking about the incident. |
|Dr. Shahbaz Gill||Academic. Formerly: Chief of Staff to Imran Khan; Spokesperson of the Government of Punjab||Dr. Gill was arrested by police and tortured over several weeks in custody. After finally being released, he left the country and now serves as the PTI spokesman in the US. |
|Dr. Yasmin Rashid||President of PTI Central Punjab. Formerly: Provincial Minister of Punjab for Health; Member of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab||Dubbed the “Iron Lady” of the PTI, the 72-year-old gynaecologist and political leader is a cancer survivor who was arrested just under a month ago. Her health is reportedly rapidly deteriorating, with other inmates recounting her screams of pain from nearby cells. |
|Dr. Shireen Mazari||PTI Senior Vice President. Formerly: Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan; Minister of Human Rights||A veteran politician and widow in her 70s, Dr. Mazari was abducted, harassed, and kept in custody for several days. On announcing her retirement from politics, she was finally freed from custody.  |
PTI's Iron Lady @Dr_YasminRashid has been arrested! They think they can stop this movement by these arrests, they don't know that Pakistan has changed forever, we are all Imran Khan now. #میں_بھی_عمران_خان_ہوں pic.twitter.com/1OioE3Q06l— PTI (@PTIofficial) May 12, 2023
8 | Threatening the diaspora
Overseas Pakistanis have always played a vital role in creating awareness in the rest of the world about the challenges that Pakistan faces. Topics such as natural calamities, financial difficulties, and human rights violations are all regularly discussed and efforts are undertaken to address such crises.
However, the current regime in Pakistan has not spared the diaspora and has targeted them through a stark warning issued by the counter-intelligence organisation, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). 
The directive says that overseas Pakistanis found guilty of committing offences on social media can be brought back to Pakistan through Interpol and tried in Pakistan. As a result, fears are growing in the overseas Pakistani community that even if Interpol is not used, they will be arrested by the FIA if they visit their country of origin. Social media activity by overseas Pakistanis has reportedly cut down several fold since this warning was issued by the FIA. 
9 | Civilians to be tried in military courts
The government and the military establishment have announced that those involved in the 9 May events will be tried in military courts.
This comes on the back of statements made by the Chief of Army Staff, General Munir, that the miscreants involved in desecrating and vandalising military monuments and installations will be dealt with via the severest of punishments.
Experts of the constitution have, however, expressed doubt that these cases fall under the Pakistan Army Act of 1952 or the Official Secrets Act of 1923, because no military or national secrets were violated by the protesters. 
10 | The PTI Dossier
The executive summary of the dossier (linked) gives a very good synopsis that can be used to highlight human rights violations by the government and military. However, this dossier came out prior to 9 May, and therefore does not truly capture the extreme brutality, killings, and torture unleashed on innocent civilians since that point. 
The crackdown that has followed the events of 9 May has so far reportedly resulted in 50 dead, thousands arrested, and hundreds injured. In a BBC report (linked), the death toll is given as 10 but PTI sources, including Imran Khan, claim that it is much higher.
The point to highlight is that in these protests, not a single member of law enforcement personnel has been reported killed. This is arguably evidence to demonstrate that the protesters were unarmed and peaceful. Despite this, fatal force was used to crush the resistance. 
11 | Media blackouts
There are reports that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has banned the mention of the name or image of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan on any electronic channel. Earlier, PEMRA had issued a ban on airing Imran Khan’s live speeches. 
Whether or not the directive to ban Imran Khan’s image and name has formally been issued, the restriction appears to have already come into full effect as TV channels and their anchors have recently stayed well clear of uttering Khan’s name or showing his image.
This is a complete blackout of a political leader, who still enjoys incredibly high approval ratings. Indeed, according to a recent Gallup survey done in March this year, the PTI leader had the backing of 61 per cent of the public. Over the last few months, it may have climbed further still. 
This article was written with extensive reporting from a firsthand source in Pakistan. Edited by Shaheer Choudhury.