KARACHI: Pakistani police detained at least two dozen supporters of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan today as they tried to rally in the country’s biggest city ahead of elections next month.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has been severely hamstrung ahead of the Feb 8 poll, with rallies banned, its party symbol taken away, and dozens of its candidates rejected from eligibility to stand.
Rights groups have warned the national and provincial elections lack credibility, with the powerful military accused of trying to influence the vote.
Today, PTI officials urged supporters to rally across the country despite police withdrawing or declining permission for the gatherings to take place.
Around 2,000 gathered in Karachi, the bustling southern port city of over 20 million people on the Arabian Sea, where AFP correspondents saw about two dozen PTI supporters detained by police and taken away in trucks.
PTI media advisor Zulfiqar Bukhari said there had also been arrests in Rawalpindi – the sprawling garrison city neighbouring the capital, Islamabad – as well as in other parts of Punjab, the country’s most populous province.
Police officials said they had no information on arrests.
The election has largely been a lacklustre affair so far, with few mass rallies – a combination of party inaction, voter apathy, and the cold winter weather.
Three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is expected to take the most seats, has barely been seen on the campaign trail, although Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who heads the other major dynastic political group, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has been more visible.
He held a rally attended by several thousand in Rawalpindi on Sunday.
Much of the action has taken place in the country’s courts, which for months have been at the centre of battles by politicians and parties challenging everything from the use of election symbols to the eligibility of candidates to run for office.
This weekend, several Pakistani journalists, political commentators and bloggers said they were summoned by the country’s top crime agency to answer charges they were running a “malicious campaign” against Supreme Court judges ahead of the elections.
They had received notices from the Federal Investigation Agency summoning them to a hearing in the capital this week.
“This is the price one has to pay for this sort of journalism,” Asad Ali Toor, one of the journalists who had received a notice, told AFP, adding that he had faced similar cases under successive governments.
Farieha Aziz, a digital-rights activist in Karachi, told AFP the investigation was part of an increase in censorship in Pakistan.
Earlier this week, the government announced it had formed a team to “ascertain facts behind a malicious social media campaign” against Supreme Court judges.
Murtaza Solangi, the caretaker information minister, said more than 500 social media accounts had taken part in the anti-judiciary campaign, adding that “action will be taken”.
This month, PTI lost a crucial battle at the country’s top court to retain its cricket bat election symbol – vital in a nation where the adult literacy rate is just 58%, according to World Bank data.
The verdict, deemed harsh by many legal experts, was heavily criticised on social media.
Media groups have faced heavy pressure from the establishment – a term commonly used to refer to the country’s military and intelligence services – in the lead-up to the election, including a ban on mentioning Khan’s name on the airwaves.
Pakistan’s military has directly ruled the country for roughly half of its history, and critics say it continues to maintain control over many aspects of governance.