Pakistani Peoples Party activists protest against the arrest of Asif Ali Zardari, former president and co-chairman of the PPP, in Quetta on June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP / Banaras Khan

On Monday, Pakistan saw the new face of fascism and curbs on freedom of speech. First, the president of the Punjab branch of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Rana Sanaullah Khan, was arrested on charges of drug smuggling. Then the country’s largest news channel, Geo News, was asked not to air an interview of the former president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, by the invisible forces.

Zardari these days is suffering the wrath of the military establishment and is in the custody of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) with the help of the establishment is making sure that every dissenting voice is silenced, and it seems that both Prime Minister Imran Khan and the establishment are going to increase curbs on freedom of speech and their witch-hunts against the opposition.

Sanaullah’s arrest was expected, but no one thought Imran Khan and the establishment would sink to such a low level that they would charge him with smuggling 15 kilograms of heroin. In fact, Sanaullah has often criticized Imran Khan and accused him of addiction to cocaine, many times challenging Khan to prove him wrong by undergoing a blood test. So probably Khan has taken revenge, and another government institution, the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), has been used like the NAB to victimize an opposition leader.

After all, it only takes common sense to understand that Sanaullah, being the president of the PML-N Punjab chapter and a legislator, could never carry such a huge quantity of drugs with him, especially when he knew that his arrest was in the cards.

This is not the first time that an opposition member has been victimized through a fake case – the dictators General Pervez Musharraf and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq both used these tactics to crush dissenting voices.

According to whistleblowers in the power corridors, many more vocal members of PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will be charged in fake cases and put behind bars in order to bring political stability. This is the reason close Musharraf aide Ijaz Shah has been given control of the Ministry of Interior.

Ijaz Shah is known for lodging cases against political parties; in the Musharraf era he successfully dismantled the PML-N and created a new party called the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PMLQ). He also was active in creating a new faction of the PPP in Parliament with the name of PPP (Patriot) at that time.

However, this time Ijaz Shah has not been successful in dismantling the PML-N, as Nawaz Sharif opted to go behind bars so his party could remain intact. Ijaz Shah also has failed to create any faction in the PPP this time, as Asif Zardari is sitting behind bars and his presence in the country is giving his party legislators hope that in the end he will prevail. So right now what Pakistan is going through is an era that is worse than martial law.

This coup where the establishment is calling the shots while the puppet prime minister Imran Khan is the face of this coup is turning into a nightmare for the country. Pakistan’s economic woes are increasing day by day and neither the establishment nor the PTI government has any clue on how to deal with them. Electronic and print media are under immense pressure and can only present one-sided narratives, while state institutions like the NAB and ANF are used to malign PTI’s political opponents.

Freedom of speech remains a dream in Pakistan, as you never know when you will be added to the list of a missing persons or be charged under a fake case. After 71 years of independence, the country is hostage to the colonial mindset of the establishment.

The terrorist Ehsanullah Ehsan, who was the spokesman for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was allowed to give an interview on television despite the fact that he was involved in the conspiracy leading to the Army Public School massacre that took the lives of 132 children. However, the interview of political prisoner and a former president Asif Zardari was taken off the air on the instructions of the invisible forces because they thought his interview would damage the credibility of the current artificial political discourse.

On the other hand, Sanaullah has been booked on a charge that itself is a mockery of the current system in Pakistan. Sanaullah was arrested before under Musharraf, and he was brutally tortured before being imprisoned. For sure he can sustain the torture and the wrath of the PTI government and its backers, but the question arises, will Khan and his PTI be able to bear the same if times change?

The history of Pakistan’s politics shows that times change very quickly in the power corridors, and mostly the establishment after using their pawns throw them out at the mercy of time and circumstances. We have seen that from Asghar Khan to Mir Zafarullah Jamali and the PMLQ leadership – every one was thrown out by the establishment after it successfully took advantage of them on the political chessboard. So probably Khan needs to realize that his PTI is an establishment’s party only and it is the establishment that has brought electable candidates from the other political parties into its cadre. The moment the winds shift to blow against PTI, these electable candidates will leave the party and Khan along with his few close aides will be left to face the consequences. After all, it is Khan who has turned the political rivalry into personal rivalry, and it will not take long to see him on the receiving end.

During the Musharraf era, leaders like Mushaidullah Khan, Javed Hashmi and Saad Rafique were brutally tortured and imprisoned. The same was the case with Asif Zardari, who was jailed by Musharraf to make a deal with Benazir Bhutto. At that time the Musharraf dictatorship was at its peak, and he thought he would rule forever. However, the times changed and we saw first the PPP coming to power and then PML-N. We also saw General Musharraf facing treason trials in the courts. So the times will change again, but this time the democratic political parties in Pakistan have to devise a strategy through which they can prevent the establishment from intervening in the political discourse. This is the only way forward for Pakistan.

The curbs on freedom of the press and of expression and victimizing the opposition will never yield any results, nor will these actions help get Pakistan out of political and economic instability. Probably one day Pakistan will see real democracy, but until then probably many dissenting politicians and journalists will have to sacrifice their lives, and many will be maligned and deprived of their freedom. Probably it is too heavy a cost to pay, but then there is nothing more worthy than standing for democracy and basic rights of press and expression freedom.

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