By Democracy Now, August 23, 2022
We speak to the Pakistani British historian and writer Tariq Ali about new anti-terrorism charges brought against former Prime Minister Imran Khan after he spoke out against the country’s police and a judge who presided over the arrest of one of his aides. His rivals have pressed for severe charges against Khan to keep him out of the next elections as his popularity grows across the country, says Ali. Ali also discusses devastating floods in Pakistan, which have killed nearly 800 people over the past two months, and have never happened “on this scale.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We turn now to look at the political crisis in Pakistan, where the former Prime Minister Imran Khan has been charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act. It’s the latest escalation between the Pakistani state and Khan, who remains very popular following his ouster from office in April in what he described as a form of a “U.S.-backed regime change.” Khan has continued to hold major rallies across Pakistan. But over the weekend, Pakistani authorities banned TV stations from broadcasting his speeches live. Then, Monday, police filed anti-terrorism charges against him after he a gave speech accusing police officers of torturing one of his close aides who was jailed on sedition charges. Soon after the charges were announced, hundreds of Khan’s supporters gathered outside his home to prevent police from arresting him. Later Monday, Khan responded to the charges in a speech in Islamabad.
IMRAN KHAN: [translated] I had called to take legal action against them, the police officers and judicial magistrate, and the government registered a terrorism case against me. In the first place, they do the wrong thing. When we say we will take legal action, they register a case against me and take out an arrest warrant against me. What does this show? There is no rule of law in our country.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re joined now in London by Tariq Ali, the Pakistani British historian, activist, filmmaker, on the editorial committee of the New Left Review, author of many books, including Uprising in Pakistan: How to Bring Down a Dictatorship, which came out a few years ago, and Can Pakistan Survive? His latest book, Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes, we’ll talk about on another show. And we’re also talking about this in the midst of these massive floods of Pakistan, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
Tariq, talk about the significance of the terrorism charges against Imran Khan, who was ousted in what basically he calls U.S.-backed regime change.
TARIQ ALI: Well, Imran had annoyed the United States. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. He had said — when Kabul fell, he said publicly, as prime minister, that the Americans made a huge mess in that country, and this is the result. Then, after the Ukraine war was unleashed by Putin, Imran was in Moscow that day. He didn’t comment on it, but he was just surprised that it happened during his state visit. But he refused to back sanctions against Russia, and he was criticized for that, to which he replied, “India is not backing the sanctions. Why don’t you criticize them? China is not backing them. The bulk of the world, Third World, is not backing them. Why pick on me?” But he had become a nuisance. Whether the United States put too much into it, we don’t know. But certainly, the military, which is very dominant in Pakistani politics, must have thought that to please the United States, better get rid of him. And there’s no doubt that without military support for his removal, he wouldn’t have been ousted.
Now, what they thought or what they assumed was that Imran would lose all popularity, because his government had made many mistakes. There was talk of corruption by his wife, etc., etc. Then something happened in July which shook the establishment, which is that in the most populous and important province in the country, important in terms of power, the Punjab, there were 20 by-elections for parliamentary seats, and Imran won 15 of them. He could have won another two, had his party been better organized. So that showed that support for him, if it had evaporated, was coming back, because people were just shocked by the government that had replaced him. And that, I think, also gave Imran a lot of hope that he could win the next general elections quite easily. And he went on a grand tour of the country, of which there were two prongs: The military has put corrupt politicians in power, and the United States has organized a regime change. And one of the biggest chants on all these demonstration, which had hundreds of thousands of people on them, was “He who is a friend of the United States is a traitor. A traitor.” That was the big chant and a very popular chant at the time. So, he has, no doubt, built himself up again.
And I think it’s that event, Amy, in July, of showing popular support via elections, when he isn’t even in power, that worried them, so they’ve been waging a campaign against him. Arresting him under the anti-terrorism laws is truly grotesque. He has attacked judges in the past. He was attacking some of the judicial authorities in his speech the other day. If you want to arrest him, you have — you can accuse him of contempt of court, so he can go and fight against that, and we’ll see who wins, and in which court. But instead, they’ve arrested him under the terrorism laws, which is a bit worrying, that if the aim is to keep him out of the next elections because of the so-called terrorism charges, that will create more havoc in the country. He is not too worried at the moment, from what I can gather.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tariq, I wanted to ask you — given the massive protests that have erupted in support of him, is it your sense that even people who may have been opposed to Imran Khan are unifying behind him, against the political and military establishment of the country? After all — and the potential for continued disruption in a country that’s the fifth-largest country in the world in terms of population.
TARIQ ALI: Yeah, I think they are worried. And I think Imran made a very significant remark in his speech over the weekend. He said, “Don’t forget. Listen to the bells that are tolling in Sri Lanka,” where there was a mass uprising which occupied the presidential palace and resulted in the president fleeing and a few changes set into motion. He said, “We are not going down that road, but we want new elections, and we want them soon.” Now, when they took power, the new government said we will try and have elections in September or October. Now they’ve postponed these elections ’til August next year.
And, Juan, you have to understand that at the same time, the new government’s deal with the IMF has meant huge price rises in the country. There are many people now who cannot afford to buy the staple foods of the country. It’s become too expensive. The price of gas has shot up. So, for the poor, who already have little electricity, it’s a total trauma. And people, of course, blame the new government, because this is the government that did the deal with the IMF, and the economic situation in the country is extremely precarious. And this has also boosted Imran’s popularity, without any doubt. I mean, the talk is that were there an election to be held within the next four months, he would sweep the country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned the role of the military in Pakistani politics. What was the military’s relationship to Imran before this crisis erupted, before his ouster as prime minister?
TARIQ ALI: Well, they approved him coming to power. There’s no doubt about that. I mean, it may be embarrassing both for him and them now in the present situation in the country, but there is little doubt that the military was, in fact, behind him when he came to power. But like other politicians, he has used his power and built up a huge base for himself in the country, which was formerly restricted to the regime, the Pakhtunkhwa regime, government, elected government in the northern part of the country, on the border with Afghanistan, but is now spreading, even to parts of Karachi. And the Punjab now seems to be a stronghold, one of the PTI’s — Imran’s party’s — main strongholds.
So, the military and political establishment isn’t having it their way. I mean, they thought they could create a new stability with the Sharif brothers. Now, what is interesting, Juan, and hasn’t been reported is that prior to Shehbaz Sharif, you know, eagerly stepping into Imran’s shoes, there was a rift, I’m told, between the two brothers. His older brother, Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister, who is in Britain, supposedly ill, because he was released from a prison on corruption charges to go for an operation in Britain — he’s been here for some years — he was opposed to Shehbaz coming to taking office. He said, “Better to go for an immediate general election while Imran is unpopular, and we might win that, and then we’ll have years ahead.” But his brother outvoted him or whatever, however they settle these arguments, and said, “No, no, we need a new government now. The situation is bad.” Well, this is the result.
AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about the horrendous flooding taking place in Pakistan, Tariq. Over the last two months, abnormally heavy monsoon rains have led to the deaths of about 800 people, the floods damaging over 60,000 homes. Here are some of the voices of survivors of the floods.
AKBAR BALOCH: [translated] We are very worried. Our elders are saying they have not seen such rains and floods in the past 30 to 35 years. This is the first time we have seen such heavy rains. Now we are concerned that, God forbid, this type of heavy rain may continue in the future, because the weather pattern is changing. So we are now really nervous about this. We are really worried.
SHER MOHAMMAD: [translated] The rain destroyed my house. My livestock were all lost, my fields devastated. Only our lives were saved. Nothing else is left. Thank God, he saved the lives of my children. Now we are at Allah’s mercy.
MOHAMMAD AMIN: [translated] My property, my house, everything was flooded. So we took shelter on the roof of a government school for three days and three nights, around 200 people with kids. We sat on the roof for three days. When the water receded a little, we dragged the kids out of the mud and walked for two days until we arrived at a safe place.
AMY GOODMAN: So, it may be close to a thousand people are dead, tens of thousands displaced. The significance of this climate change in Pakistan and how it’s affecting the politics of the country?
TARIQ ALI: It’s affecting politics all over the world, Amy. And Pakistan, of course, isn’t — can’t be excluded, nor is it exceptional. But what makes Pakistan, to a certain extent, different is that floods on this scale — it’s true what the person said — that they have not been seen before, certainly not in living memory. There have been floods, and regularly, but not on this scale. I mean, even the city of Karachi, which is the largest industrial city in the country, which has barely seen floods in the past, they were — half the city was underwater, including areas where middle- and upper-middle-class people live. So, it’s been a huge shock.
The question is this — and this is a question which comes up whenever there’s an earthquake, a flood, a natural disaster: Why has Pakistan, successive governments, military and civilian, not been able to construct a social infrastructure, a safety net for ordinary people? It’s fine for the rich and the well-off. They can escape. They can leave the country. They can go to a hospital. They have enough food. But for the bulk of the country, this is not the case. And this just highlights the social crisis that has been eating away at Pakistan, and that has now been further devastated by the IMF demands, which are wrecking the country. I mean, there is malnutrition in parts of the country. The floods wrecked Balochistan, one of the poorest parts of the country and a province that has been ignored for many, many decades by successive governments. So, you know, we always talk and get worked up about particular natural disasters or climate change disasters, but the government should set up a planning commission to actually plan to build a social structure, social infrastructure for the country. This doesn’t just apply to Pakistan, of course. Many other countries should do the same. But in Pakistan, the situation is particularly desolate, because the rich don’t care. They just don’t care.
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, before we go, we have 30 seconds, and I wanted to ask you about the situation of Julian Assange. We just did a segment on the Julian Assange lawyers and journalists suing the CIA and Mike Pompeo personally, the former CIA director, for working with a Spanish company in bugging the embassy, videoing, audioing, taking visitors’ computers and phones, downloading them, interfering with client-attorney privilege. Could this stop the extradition of Julian Assange, who faces espionage charges in the United States?
TARIQ ALI: Well, it should, Amy — that’s the first answer — because this has been a political case from the beginning. The fact that senior officials discussed whether to kill Assange or not, and that’s the country to which the British government and judiciary, acting in collusion, are sending him back, claiming this isn’t a political trial, this isn’t a political victimization, it’s deeply shocking.
Well, I hope that this trial brings some more facts forward and some action is taken, because this extradition really should be stopped. We are all trying, but the politicians, by and large, and mainly of both parties — and the Australian new prime minister in the election campaign pledged he’d do something. The minute he becomes prime minister, he just completely caves in to the United States — barely a surprise. But in the meantime, Julian’s health is bad. We are extremely worried about how he’s being treated in prison. He shouldn’t be in prison, even if he is going to be extradited. So, I hope for the best but fear the worst, because one shouldn’t have any illusions about this judiciary.
AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, historian, activist, filmmaker, author of Uprising in Pakistan: How to Bring Down a Dictatorship. His latest book, Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes.