The power struggle between Pakistan’s ousted prime minister Imran Khan and the military shows no sign of abating. There’s great uncertainty as to what might happen in elections scheduled for October, but Khan can be expected to keep trying to galvanise his support base with populist and conspiracy theory-filled rhetoric and the military to continue trying to ensure he ends up in jail. In this power struggle that does nothing to address Pakistan’s many problems, human rights will likely be further repressed. Protesters have been criminalised and the media censored and intimidated. It’s time to start reversing the destructive cycle by respecting fundamental civic freedoms.

Pakistan’s protracted political crisis – with an ousted prime minister facing numerous criminal charges at loggerheads with the government and the powerful military – shows no sign of abating as the country heads for elections in October. And while Pakistan’s politicians fight, the country’s civil society suffers.

Protest violence

In the latest twist, on 24 July an arrest warrant was issued against former prime minister Imran Khan by the country’s Election Commission, on the grounds of contempt. Under the terms of the warrant Khan couldn’t be bailed once arrested. A contempt hearing has since been postponed until August. But even if Khan survives this charge, he faces what seems a determined attempt to put him in jail. This is one of a reported 150-plus cases issued against Khan since he was ousted by a no-confidence vote.

Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had come to power in the July 2018 election, but in 2020, previously divided opposition parties united against him to form the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM); in 2022 the PDM succeeded in splitting off some PTI members and coalition supporters, winning the no-confidence vote and taking over government. The vote came amid a constitutional crisis, triggered by the decision of deputy speaker and PTI member Qasim Khan Suri to dismiss the no-confidence motion and Khan’s statement that he had instead asked the president to dissolve parliament. The Supreme Court intervened, ruling Khan’s move to be unconstitutional, leading to Khan losing the vote amid late-night drama.

Khan’s ousting sparked protests from his supporters, but these were nothing compared to the fury provoked by his arrest and detention on corruption charges in May this year. An earlier arrest attempt had only been thwarted by the intervention of his supporters.

Khan was freed on bail soon after, with the Supreme Court ruling that his arrest had been illegal. But by the time of his release Pakistan had been rocked by protest violence – from both pro-Khan protesters and security forces offering a disproportionate reaction. Khan supporters threw petrol bombs and rocks and set fire to vehicles and buildings, with some groups attacking government and military buildings. Police responded with teargas, rubber bullets and batons. Several people died in the violence.

Mass arrests followed, including of protesters but also Khan supporters more broadly, with thousands rounded up. People are being held on charges such as assault of government officials, criminal intimidation and rioting, with some facing trial under military laws. Journalists were among those detained. TV and YouTube journalist Imran Riaz Khan, a PTI supporter, remains forcibly disappeared, with rights groups fearing the worst.

Mobile internet was shut down and social media access restricted. This was consistent with a pattern of censorship that in March saw TV channels banned from broadcasting Khan’s speeches and media conferences, on the grounds that Khan was spreading hate speech and baseless allegations – the third time such a ban had been imposed. Now broadcast media are effectively banned from mentioning Khan by name or showing footage of him.

Spotlight on the military

Behind all this lurks Pakistan’s true power: the military. Pakistan has the world’s sixth-biggest army and it’s deeply enmeshed in political and economic power structures. Of the 75 years since Pakistan achieved independence, 33 have been under military rule, and for much of the rest of the time there’s been what can be characterised as some degree of hybrid civilian-military rule.

There’s been little pressure from Pakistan’s western allies for the military to stay out of politics, since they need military cooperation – however compromised or insincere this may be – for their goals of combating terrorism and seeking some kind of stability in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.

While Pakistan holds regular elections with changes of government, it’s essentially impossible to become prime minister without the military’s approval. When the military lose trust, retaliation is rapid. Khan is the first one to lose a no-confidence vote, but no Pakistani prime minister has ever managed to serve a full term – previous officeholders have faced criminal charges leading to their dismissal.

Before Khan, it was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who fell out with the military. In 2017 he was removed from office and the following year was sentenced on corruption charges. Sharif was likely corrupt: the Panama Papers leak showed that his family owned hidden offshore assets and companies. But this only mattered to the military when the prime minister became an obstacle.

Khan’s change of political fortune, from the 2013 election, when he came third, to 2018, when he won, can be attributed to the disaffection of the military with the previous ruling party and its decision to throw its support behind him. The military was accused of intervening extensively in the election to skew the results in Khan’s favour. And then the tide turned: Khan’s fall from grace appears to have resulted from the military disagreeing with his economic and foreign policy decisions, in response to which Khan started attacking the military.

His rhetoric only intensified following his May arrest, which he claimed had been ordered by the military. Khan also accused the military of being behind an assassination attempt, when he was shot while leading a protest march in November 2022.

Khan has never accepted his removal. He has since intensified his long-running populist campaign, blaming foreign powers – particularly the USA, historically a major although wavering supporter of Pakistan’s military – for destabilising and replacing him. He responded to the no-confidence vote by ordering PTI members of parliament to quit and holding Trump-style mass rallies at which he spread conspiracy theories and called his opponents thieves and traitors.

He’s found a receptive audience. Khan has long presented himself as the breath of fresh air needed to rid Pakistan’s politics of institutionalised corruption. It’s an approach that resonates particularly with disaffected young people facing unemployment and limited economic prospects. He continues to benefit from anger at a pollical system many feel has failed them and an associated appetite for change of any kind.

Since Khan was ousted, the PTI has won a series of by-elections. This must have given Khan hope of returning to office at the October election, particularly against a government that lacks cohesion, united only by the aim of keeping him from power.

But in July Khan’s hopes received a blow when some key supporters quit the PTI, intending to launch their own party. They mostly hail from Khan’s northwestern stronghold and hope to take votes off the PTI there. Defections from the PTI have also likely been encouraged by a string of arrests of its top officials, offering a powerful incentive for politicians to join another party. Efforts to put Khan in jail rather than on the ballot paper can be expected to intensify.

If Khan evades jail and prevails at the election, something will have to give. An eventual renegotiation of a hybrid rule arrangement with the military can’t be ruled out, although Khan might have burned his bridges, leading to a deadlock or perhaps even an outright coup. But the military has been put under the spotlight like never before. Khan’s invective and the extent of the protest anger are unprecedented, signalling unpredictable times ahead.

Civil society caught in the middle

Even if the military stays out of politics, civilian rule can be no more respectful of human rights. Regardless of who’s in power, Pakistan’s civil society activists live with considerable danger, including enforced disappearances, torture, criminalisation, threats and harassment, and with systemic impunity for human rights violations.

Civil society organisations are smeared and vilified as agents of foreign powers. Journalists are censored, and attacks on media freedoms only worsened under Khan’s premiership: in 2021, Reporters Without Borders branded him a ‘press freedom predator’. Protests – and not only those by PTI supporters – experience restriction and violence, particularly when they advocate for the rights of women, the Pashtun minority and other excluded groups. The military’s interests are equally served by a tightly restricted civic space, including heavy media control.

Meanwhile the ongoing political circus does nothing to address Pakistan’s many real problems, including economic strife and poverty, the denial of women’s rights, conflicts that include an ongoing Taliban insurgency and the impacts of climate change, made manifest in the devastating floods that affected one-third of Pakistan in 2022.

These are huge challenges, and civil society should be enabled to play its proper range of roles to help address them. The government, the opposition and the military should commit to recognising and respecting fundamental civil and political freedoms and ensuring that civil society has the space it needs to do its work. This would offer a vital first step towards breaking the present destructive cycle.


  • The Pakistani government and military must publicly condemn and put an end to all acts of harassment and intimidation of civil society and political activists, including judicial harassment.
  • The government and military must ensure that journalists are able to work freely and without fear of retribution for expressing critical opinions or covering topics that may be deemed sensitive.
  • The government should unconditionally and immediately release all protesters who have been detained for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and refrain from using military laws and courts to prosecute protesters.

Cover photo by Arif Ali/AFP via Getty Images