Long wait for families of PTI leaders jailed over 2023 protests in Pakistan

Two parliamentarians, one still serving, languish in jail for alleged violence during the deadly protests following Imran Khan’s brief arrest in May.

Ejaz Chaudhry and Aliya Hamza
Senator Ejaz Chaudhry, left, and former parliamentarian Aliya Hamza Malik [Courtesy: National Assembly of Pakistan]

A court in Pakistan is set to hear the bail petition of Aliya Hamza Malik, a former parliamentarian who has been in jail for nearly 10 months for protesting against the arrest of her Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party’s founder and former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Nationwide street protests had erupted in Pakistan after Khan was briefly arrested over corruption charges on May 9 last year, days after he lost a confidence vote in parliament.

Khan’s supporters, furious with his sacking, which they alleged was orchestrated by his political rivals and the powerful military, stormed government buildings and military installations on May 9 to protest against his arrest.

The deadly demonstrations had killed at least 12 people and led to the arrest of hundreds of PTI leaders and supporters, some of them still in custody.

Malik, 46, was accused of setting fire to a police station in the eastern city of Lahore, the country’s second largest, during the protest. She was also charged with attacking the residence of a military commander, called Jinnah House, in the same city.

Malik denied both accusations. In January, she was able to secure bail in the Jinnah House case.

The bail hearing scheduled in the Lahore High Court on Wednesday on the case related to the attack on the police station will be the fifth since her arrest.

“One time the prosecutor was on holiday. In the past three hearings, the investigator said he did not bring the evidentiary record. Once the judge was on leave,” her husband Hamza told Al Jazeera.

“We hope this time she can finally be released and come home to be reunited with her family.”

Aliya Hamza Pakistan PTI Khan
Aliya Hamza Malik, right, with PTI founder and ex-PM Imran Khan [Courtesy: @aliya_hamza]

They ‘abducted her’

Malik’s ordeal began on the evening of May 10, 2023, a day after the protests as the government launched an unprecedented crackdown on PTI, the main opposition party.

She was home with her family in Lahore when she heard a sudden and persistent pounding on her front door.

Moments later, nearly a dozen police officers, some in plain clothes, broke the door and barged in, waving guns and sticks. For the next 10 minutes, the all-male contingent ransacked the home, shattering the mirrors and breaking cabinets and TV sets.

Their phones, laptops and even air pods were seized, with the raid ending with Malik’s arrest, Hamza said, all without an arrest or search warrant.

“They basically abducted her, with guns pointed at our three teenage daughters and my mother,” he said, adding that no male member of the family was present at the time.

“If this can happen to a high-profile ex-parliamentarian, then imagine what a common man with little resources must be going through.”

On the same day, Ejaz Chaudhry, another PTI leader and serving member of Pakistan’s Senate, the upper house of parliament, was also arrested for allegedly inciting violence through a series of posts on his X, formerly Twitter, account.

Though a court in capital Islamabad dismissed the charges and ordered his release, the 67-year-old politician was rearrested at the court and transferred to a Lahore prison where he remains in custody in nearly a dozen cases, including the attack on Jinnah House.

Like Malik, he also denies the accusations.

Pakistan protests
A supporter of Imran Khan throws a tear gas canister back at security forces during a protest in Karachi on May 10, 2023 [File: Shahzaib Akber/EPA]

Chaudhry’s son, who did not want to reveal his name for fear of reprisals, told Al Jazeera his father was accused of committing multiple offences within minutes of each other in separate cities.

“That is just humanly impossible. It just shows how ridiculous these cases are,” he said.

The son said proceedings in only two of Chaudhry’s cases have commenced so far, both conducted internally within the jail, circumstances he described as “lacking all transparency”.

“No media is present to cover the trial. We have little idea what goes on except from what we hear from our lawyers and my mother,” he said, adding that only one family member is allowed to attend the trial.

Moreover, the families say no evidence related to the attack on Jinnah House has been presented in the court in 10 months.

“The Lahore Cantonment is a highly monitored area. No CCTV camera footage showing who entered or who instigated [the violence] has been shown so far,” Chaudhry’s son said.

‘Crossed all lines’

Lawyer Khadija Siddiqi said the authorities “crossed all the lines” in their pursuit to arrest the alleged perpetrators of the May 9 riots.

“The mass arrests instilled so much fear barely anyone was willing to talk about it,” Siddiqi, who has represented several people jailed in connection to the attacks, told Al Jazeera.

The Lahore-based lawyer said one of her clients, a gardener, was detained when he happened to be in the cantonment area where he worked in the houses of military officers. Days later, he was picked up by the police while taking his eight-year-old daughter to a hospital for dialysis, and sent to jail.

Pakistan protests after Imran Khan's arrest
Khan’s supporters protesting against his arrest in Lahore on May 9, 2023 [File: K M Chaudary/AP Photo]

Siddiqi said the events of May 9 were used by the government to “banish the PTI from Pakistan’s political landscape” ahead of the crucial general election held last month.

“By arresting its leaders and supporters, the state wanted to demotivate people from supporting the party. They wanted to demolish it in its entirety,” she said.

The crackdown on the PTI that started in May continued for months, culminating in the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Khan in August. In subsequent months, Khan was convicted in at least three cases, including leaking of state secrets, corruption and even an “unlawfully held” wedding.

Khan insists he is innocent and accuses the military of targeting him to keep him out of politics. The military denies the allegation.

Controversial election

Meanwhile, Khan’s PTI was stripped of its election symbol earlier this year for allegedly violating electoral laws, forcing its candidates to contest the February 8 election as independents. The chaotic vote saw large-scale allegations of rigging and an unusual delay in the announcement of results.

The PTI-backed candidates, however, emerged from the crisis as the largest bloc in the parliament, winning 93 seats in the 336-member National Assembly, 266 of which are directly elected. The other 70 seats are reserved for women and religious minorities and are assigned to parties based on their performance in the polls.

The hung verdict saw Khan’s archrival and three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) again forming an alliance with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), with Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz Sharif elected prime minister for a second term.

The PTI says the vote was rigged by the “establishment”, a euphemism for the military, to help the Sharifs return to power, and has demanded a judicial inquiry into the events of May 9.

Malik also contested the recent election from behind bars against Shehbaz’s son Hamza. She received more than 100,000 votes, losing by a margin of 5,000 votes to her PMLN rival. Her family and PTI have also accused the election authorities of vote tampering and plan to challenge the results in court, insisting Malik actually beat Hamza.

For the last 10 months, however, accepting the harsh realities of prison life and its effect on their loved ones have been tough for the families of the jailed Malik and Chaudhry.

Chaudhry’s son says his father was forced to sleep on a thin foam mattress for six months despite having diabetes and heart disease. He said his father required a specific diet recommended by his doctors, a provision that was denied for months and only granted when he was briefly hospitalised.

Moreover, the harsh winter only added to Chaudhry’s woes in prison, his son said. With no central heating, his request for a heater in his cell was rejected, with the prison authorities dismissing his concerns by simply telling his father to “wear warmer clothes”.

Similarly, Malik’s husband Hamza said she has lost 7kg (15.4 pounds) in jail and was once rushed to a hospital after she complained of heart palpitations.

Hamza said his daughters had started sleeping in their parents’ room for some time, fearing more unannounced visits from the authorities. “The girls miss her very much,” he said.

“Despite her professional obligations, she was involved in every part of their lives. She would find time to help them with their school work, make sure they were eating right, and that their health was good.”

A recovering cancer patient, Hamza said the attention on his wife’s legal cases has left him with little time for anything else. He owns a kitchen equipment and utensils company in Lahore.

“I have a business to run, which is being affected as I am not able to give it my full concentration. I am running around everywhere, from the jail to the courts, or meeting lawyers late at night,” he said. “I have been suffering a lot.”

‘Can’t bend people’s minds’

Chaudhry’s family had similar grievances, and then some more.

When the authorities could not find Chaudhry on May 9, his whereabouts unknown, they detained members of his extended family, including his brother-in-law and a nephew.

Their rented home was also raided and ransacked, said his son. When they vacated the place, they lost their security deposit and had to pay for damage worth millions of rupees.

In the crackdown that followed the May 9 riots, several jailed PTI leaders announced they were parting ways with Khan, or even quitting politics altogether. Analysts said some of the exits appeared to be forced and likely orchestrated by the military.

However, Malik and Chaudhry remained with the PTI.

Chaudhry’s son said when his mother first met his father in jail, the senator told her not to ask him to “surrender”. “He knew these were politically motivated charges. They can never be proven in court,” he said.

Hamza recalled a similar situation. “She got several offers to quit the party,” he told Al Jazeera. “They said she could be out of jail the next day, but she outright refused.”

When asked who he thought had made the offers, he replied: “It doesn’t make a difference if I say who it was or wasn’t. Everyone knows.”

Analyst Imtiaz Gul said the PTI’s strong showing in the polls was the “result of a combination of thumping support for Imran Khan and the rejection of the civil-military status quo”.

“The continued incarceration of the PTI leaders underlines the resolve of the authorities to turn them into examples for deterring others from being so outspoken,” he told Al Jazeera.

“That the people spoke through the election demonstrated that coercive measures could work for the time being but cannot bend people’s minds.”

Source: Al Jazeera