Pakistan’s crackdown on Imran Khan’s party reaches Britain

As the country’s powerful military intensifies its campaign to dismantle the PTI, British Pakistanis share how they have been affected

Two Pakistani women protest in London against Imran Khan's jail sentencing in Pakistan
Two female Pakistani supporters of the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), protest in Whitehall, London against the arrest of PTI leader Imran Khan. Photo by Andy Soloman/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

On the evening of 23 March 2023, Shahid Hussain, 66, from Hayes, west London, was in Lahore, Pakistan, catching up with a friend at a bustling cafe. They left the Quetta Tea House at 11.30pm. “As soon as I came out, a group of eight to ten men, all wearing black uniforms and holding guns, surrounded me,” he said.

Hussain, a prominent organiser for the jailed former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party, had spent the day finalising plans for a political rally to be held at the city’s Minar-e-Pakistan monument. Leaving the cafe, he saw two more men — both dressed in plain clothes but also carrying guns — appear. They bundled him into the back of a nearby car, covered his head with a black cloth and drove him out of the city. 

Hussain, who was detained for six days and unable to contact his family in the UK, is one of a growing number of British Pakistanis who say they have been targeted by a widespread military crackdown on PTI leaders and supporters. The campaign began when Khan was ousted from government after losing a no confidence vote in April 2022.

PTI officials estimate that thousands of party members and supporters have since been arrested or detained, including senior leaders such as the former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, former senior vice president Fawad Chaudhry and the party’s former general secretary, Asad Umar. 

Khan, who rose to fame as an international cricketer before turning to politics, is banned from contesting the general election on 8 February, in which up to 118 million voters will head to the polls. He recently received three prison sentences after Pakistan’s courts ruled that he had leaked state secrets, retained and sold state gifts, and that his 2018 marriage to Bushra Bibi was unlawful.

The former prime minister, who has been incarcerated since his arrest in August 2023, has described the charges against him as “false, frivolous and concocted”. He has also accused Pakistan’s military establishment of orchestrating a campaign to dismantle his party — the military has denied Khan’s allegations.

The worsening rift between the PTI and Pakistan’s armed forces has also seen at least 80 party leaders quit or defect, following alleged threats of violence against them and their families. An unknown number have also gone into hiding in Pakistan and abroad to avoid persecution.

UK-based PTI activists have complained that they have been harassed when visiting Pakistan. The party, which enjoys popular support among British Pakistanis, established a UK arm in 2010 and claims to have more than 15,000 members operating in 12 constituencies across England, Scotland and Wales.

In the months leading up to his abduction, Hussain, a retired businessman and director of PTI UK, had been providing security at Khan’s Lahore residence, including sweeping the building for listening devices and other surveillance equipment.

Hussain said he was held on a base used by Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. He added that he was blindfolded and interrogated several times a day and pressed for information about the PTI’s foreign funding and his work at Khan’s home.

“All I could think about was my family, and what they must have been going through, not knowing where I am. That was really painful for me,” he said.

In England, Hussain’s wife and six children learned of his disappearance through Pakistani press reports and took to social media to help spread news of his plight. A letter written to the Chief Justice of Pakistan by Hussain’s wife was shared on Twitter and viewed more than 130,000 times. 

“Because of that and my dual nationality, the authorities knew they couldn’t abuse me, but I could tell they wanted something out of me,” said Hussain.

Hussain was released and returned to the UK in April 2023, but fears visiting Pakistan again. 

Although Pakistan has been a democracy since its independence in 1947, the country’s turbulent history has been marred by long periods of military rule. No civilian-elected government has ever managed to complete a full five-year term and army generals have presided over the nation for more than 30 years in total.

However, experts believe the scale of the current crackdown by the country’s armed forces to be unprecedented, even when compared with the repression of political parties in the past. “The lack of fairness that we see today is of a completely different degree, it is unimaginable. It’s a repression that is not just limited to one particular province, it is everywhere. It is also much more organised and is being enforced not only by the military but by all agents of the state,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a political scientist and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.

Over the past year, thousands of other Pakistanis with links to the PTI, including members of my own family, have been detained for weeks — or months — by the country’s armed forces. 

On Wednesday 24 January, a group of more than 10 unidentified, armed men stormed my grandmother’s house in Gujrat, Punjab, and abducted my maternal uncle, a British national. The following day, family members attempted to alert local law enforcement to his abduction, but police officers refused to register his case. He is still missing.

That is not the first time a family member has been detained without charge. My cousin, Hassan, 29, from Slough, who wished to be identified by his first name only, shared how his father went missing in Pakistan on 4 December, 2023.

Hassan’s father, a PTI MP in Gujarat, Punjab, had been in hiding for six months before he was captured and abducted by a group of armed men dressed in black uniforms or plain clothes.

Describing the effect it had on his family in the UK, Hassan said: “It was like the ground had been pulled from beneath us. For months, we had been living with this dark shadow over us, worried about his whereabouts and fearing for his safety, but we never imagined that something would actually happen to him.”

In the days that followed, Hassan felt helpless. His father is a Pakistani national, which meant there was little recourse to the UK government. Family and friends in the UK wrote dozens of letters to their MPs, appealing for help, but the most they received was an acknowledgement of the situation.

On 19 December, two weeks after his abduction, Hassan’s father was released. In a video, shared on Facebook by a privately owned Pakistani news channel, he was seen sitting next to another PTI MP, also from Gujrat. Both men announced that they were leaving the party and retiring from politics. 

Hassan said his father was tortured during his detention. “He is someone who is very strong and very proud, so to see him strung out like that was extremely difficult,” he added.

While the crackdown on PTI members and supporters in Pakistan has been well documented, supporters in the UK say their family-owned properties in Pakistan have been raided by the military. 

Aslam Bhutta, 57, a former secretary general of PTI UK from Sheffield, has not travelled to Pakistan since March 2023, for fear of what could happen to him. He said that authorities raided his home in Pakistan in May 2023, though the property was vacant at the time. That same month, two of his brothers — one of whom is a PTI worker — were detained for three weeks without charge in Gujranwala, Punjab, around 45 miles from Lahore.

Umar Ishaq, 54, from Glasgow, Scotland, is a UK PTI member and regularly travels to Islamabad to visit his elderly mother. In recent months, several homes in her neighbourhood have been raided as security services search for PTI supporters. Now, Ishaq’s mother is too scared for him to return. 

“I usually go back at least four times a year. My mother is in her 80s, and being away this long is tough,” Ishaq said. “I feel helpless, but the situation is so dangerous and depressing. It’s one of the first times in my life that I feel like I’m losing hope in Pakistan.”

Jahanzeb Khan, senior vice president of PTI UK, said these are just a handful of many examples of UK-based activists being harassed in Pakistan by both the military establishment and political opponents of PTI.

“They will intimidate your mother, your brother or your sister to pressure you to renounce your association with Imran Khan. They are doing everything they can to dismantle the party, in Pakistan and overseas,” he said.

“People are being threatened, abducted, intimidated from their homes, and there is no accountability. It is clear that in Pakistan, the military are the ones who hold the power.”

Hyphen has contacted the High Commission of Pakistan for comment.

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