Pakistan is in the middle of political chaos—and one man is at the centre of it all. Former prime minister Imran Khan was ousted last year in a no-confidence vote by political opponents, but polls this month suggest he remains by far the country’s most popular leader.
Within a year of being removed from office, 70-year-old Khan has survived an assassination attempt and faces dozens of new charges ranging from corruption, terrorism and sedition.
The popular politician was once known for his stellar cricketing career, playboy lifestyle and philanthropy. But the current government has branded him a “militant” and attempted to arrest him using excessive force, while tear gassing, attacking and arresting hundreds of his supporters. Khan believes the charges against him are political persecution tactics meant to distract him from campaigning for elections set to be held this year.
Last year, Khan alleged his removal was an “America-backed conspiracy”; the U.S., however, denied any involvement. Soon after, Khan pointed fingers at Pakistan’s powerful military, who have ruled the country under martial law for almost half its existence since 1947, and wield extensive business and political influence.
Six months later, Khan claimed the current government and a military general were responsible for his assassination attempt; they also denied any involvement. One of Imran Khan’s main obstacles to getting back into power is that he’s fallen out with the all-powerful military.
VICE World News met with the political leader in Lahore on March 6, as his supporters surrounded his home to stop authorities from arresting him.
The interview below has sections that were not included in the video above but has been been edited for brevity and clarity.
VICE World News: You are facing some very serious legal charges right now, which there’s a possibility that could lead to a prison sentence. How would you handle prison?
IMRAN KHAN: I survived an [assassination] attempt. I’m really lucky to be alive. So, prison, I guess when it comes to it, I’ll go to it. But I must say something—if I don’t fight for my country, who will? Look, in Pakistan, unless right now we fight the system, the stranglehold of a corrupt elite, which is destroying this country and the country is on its knees, unless we fight it, this country will become unlivable.
In the last six months since we’ve been out of power. 800,000 Pakistani professionals, quality people, have left the country because they’re losing faith in the country. So if people like me, who are privileged, who have respect and love in this country, more than probably anyone else, if I don’t fight for my country, who will?
So, therefore, prison, a possibility of assassination? When I came into politics 26 years ago, I realised that I was going to be up against mafias. And then I realised that unless I conquer my fear of dying, which is the ultimate fear, I would not be able to fight these mafias.
Right outside your house, there’s been police who came to try and arrest you. There’s a lot of your supporters showing up to come and protect you. How does it feel to be in the middle of this firestorm?
I always hoped one day my people [would] be politically aware, understanding what true freedom is, because true freedom comes from rule of law, which gives you rights. The demand in Pakistan is for real freedom, which means justice, which means fundamental rights. That’s what we are struggling [for]. And in my 26 years of politics, [this] is the first time I feel that people realise that they want true freedom.
From your perspective, what’s going on in this country right now?
What is happening is that the ex-army chief last April threw a conspiracy. He removed our government. He conspired with those who are in power right now, removed our government. And from then onwards, the country just went down. So we now face default bankruptcy. Never has the economic situation been so bad. Record inflation in Pakistan right now. So what has happened is that this conspiracy, led by our ex-army chief, has brought Pakistan to its knees.
All we are asking is that there should be elections. But the entire opposition and their handlers, the establishment, are scared to hold elections because they’re scared we’ll win. And so we are in this delicate situation where those in power don’t want elections. The Supreme Court has ordered the elections. And yet, because we will win, they are not allowing the elections to take place.
You are telling your people to go out on the streets, to march, to go to jail for you. You’re calling for early elections. Do you ever think that if you were to step aside, if you were to let go, that that would create a more politically stable environment when the government could get on with running the economy?
If the current government was worried about economic stability and not being able to handle the economy, why did they conspire to remove a government? We only had one and a half years left. So why? What was the hurry to bring down a government? And the hurry was that 61 percent of the current cabinet faces corruption cases. The cases were mature in the courts. They were about to be convicted. The current prime minister was about to be convicted. His sons were about to be convicted on billions of rupees of corruption. So the hurry was they didn’t want to remove the government because there was a problem with the economy or they were worried about inflation. They wanted to remove the government because they wanted to get rid of the corruption cases, which they did.
But on the question of right now, why you are not stepping aside, and whether that would create more stability…
Look, a political party does not create chaos when it does political activities. We have not called one strike right now. Everything we have done remains within the constitution, public rallies, peaceful rallies. Political parties, their job is to raise the level of public awareness, so people come. We informed them of what’s going on.
And what about now, I mean, are you scared?
Well, I mean, the threat of assassination is probably even more now than before. Because the three people I knew who were responsible for this, they are still sitting in power and they are probably more worried now than ever before, because all indications are that whenever the elections, my party is going to sweep the elections.
You’re facing a lot of legal challenges right now that could disqualify you from the elections, including corruption in criminal cases. You built your whole political career on the squeaky clean image. Is it inevitable that all politicians in various circles, to some degree, become corrupt?
Look, the corruption cases against me, there’s just one. What they’re saying is that, when you get public gifts in Pakistan, they are saying that I sold one of the gifts. So I want a public hearing about this. I want this to be in the public and covered by the media when this case comes to court. And it will be proven that whatever I did, the gifts I took from Toshakhana (state gift treasury), were 100 percent legal.
You’ve been very critical of the current government for suppressing free speech, for politically persecuting you, as you say. Under your own government talk shows were shut down, journalists who have been critical of you were attacked, tortured, detained. As someone who is presenting yourself as a victim of persecution and a beacon of free speech…
Not one case against the media, media house or any one was ever instituted by my government. What happened was that there were army laws. So the journalist who got into trouble said something to the army. So under some security law, action was taken against them. And by the way, there were two journalists abducted during my time. When I found out, immediately the next day, we had them released. Compare that to what’s going on now. A journalist was killed.
I’m asking you about under your rule, Reporters Without Borders labelled you as a press freedom predator. There was a long list of journalists who were picked up, who were detained, who were tortured. You’re saying that you didn’t know that was happening?
The two times we found out two journalists were picked up, one was Mattiulah Jan, one was some other guy. We immediately took action.
And what about the others? There were people who were shot outside their homes or people whose talk shows were shut down.
Talk shows were shut down only on two people who apparently said something against the army, not against my government.
You came into power promising to eradicate corruption within six months. You haven’t done that, you know. The Corruption Perception Index worsened during your rule.
The problem in Pakistan is that we have what is called “elite capture.” The ruling elite is above law. So it’s not just Pakistan’s problem. It’s the problem with the entire developing world. The difference between the developing world and the developed world is that in the developed world, the legal system does not allow the big crooks to get away in the developing world. Our legal system is not powerful to nab the powerful crooks. So my whole campaign is to bring the powerful crooks under the law. And why I failed, unfortunately, because the National Accountability Bureau, which deals with corruption, was not under me, but was under the army chief.
So you’re saying you don’t have control of the military?
Because the Army chief had the veto, I could not get the powerful crooks convicted, which is why we could not improve on our corruption index. Because if you cannot bring the powerful under the rule of law and hold them accountable, then I’m afraid, how can you control corruption?
You blame the military for many things, including, you know, not seeing through your corruption promises or some cases involving journalists. Why should people vote for you if you can’t control the military?
There was this imbalance. There is an imbalance in Pakistan. Elected prime minister comes in with a mandate, but the authority he just does not have, he has the responsibility, but he does not have the authority. My responsibility was fighting corruption, but I did not have the authority on the institution that was supposed to be a tool to fight corruption that was controlled by the army chief. The military is entrenched in Pakistan.
Is that not a problem that needs to be dismantled in order to actually have a free and fair country?
There needs to be a balance. No management system works if the prime minister has the responsibility, but he doesn’t have the authority.
When the Taliban took Afghanistan almost two years ago now, you noted that they had promised to uphold human rights and to form an inclusive government. It’s been two years now and the Taliban does not have an inclusive government. The human rights record is not looking good, especially for women’s rights, as I’m sure you’re aware. Is there any part of you that regrets a somewhat softer attitude towards the Taliban?
It’s unfortunate that in the West, all you look upon Afghanistan is Taliban and anti-Taliban. We in Pakistan look upon Afghanistan as our neighbour—2,700-kilometre border with Afghanistan. And after 40 years, for the first time, there’s peace in Afghanistan. This is
the first time. Since the change of the regime, the Taliban took over, we call it the Afghan government. We have to have a good relationship with them. Now, what I said was that when the Taliban took over, the Western countries must get them into the mainstream, because the more you mainstream them, the more influence you would have in enforcing human rights. But if you isolate them, what leverage has any country got left now to tell them, you know, to send your girls to school or human rights.
Are you disappointed with the way things are turning out? It’s been almost two years…
My point is that there’s a government in Afghanistan. The West has spent, what 20 years, trillions of dollars to try and bring in democracy and failed. Now, if in Afghanistan there’s now a government, the question asked by the Western countries, what should be their interest? A stable government in Afghanistan, there shouldn’t be any international terrorism. But if you isolate them, why would they listen to anyone? That’s my only point.
There’s a strong movement of young Pakistani women at the moment who are fighting for gender equity in this country. Do you support those Pakistani feminists and the fight for gender equity?
Absolutely. Yeah. Look. And Pakistan is very fortunate in a lot of ways when you compare what is going on in other countries. We have had a woman twice become prime minister. So Pakistan is not like, you know, what you would see in other countries where women are oppressed. We have another problem. Our main problem is not so much women rights, [it’s] the human rights we have as a society. And I use the word elite capture as the bar for whether it’s powerful men or women. They are very privileged in this country. In fact, they are above law. Most of the resources in the country go to this tiny elite. Our problem is human rights at the mass level, whether men or women. So we have other problems, which are much more severe.
Well, you say that women are in a good situation in Pakistan. But why did you have so few of them in your top brass when you were in government?
Well, it’s a merit system. Look, you want a system of merit. In the U.S., you haven’t had a woman prime minister, a president so far. So the point is that you select a cabinet on merit, people who are going to deliver.
And there aren’t any women who are good enough?
No, it’s not… Look, if you when you come into power, your number one priority is to deliver to the people, give them governance. To give them governance. You need the best people and the best ministries. You don’t just fill in spaces just because of quotas, because in the end, the people are going to ask you, we expected you to deliver.
There is so much disappointment amongst the Uyghur community that leaders of Muslim countries, including yourself, have not spoken out to condemn these actions. You know, Communist China is a very powerful country. Pakistan is dependent on Communist China. Does it grate on you at all that you haven’t been able to speak out because you are very vocal about Islamophobia, you are very vocal about the repression of Muslim people around the world?
Look, Isobel, the problem is there’s Imran Khan as a human rights activist. I used to speak about everything, not just Muslims, but, you know, whenever there was discrimination and human rights abuse I would speak against it. When you become the prime minister, your number one priority becomes, in my case, 220 million people of Pakistan. So therefore, when that is your number one priority, then you have to be very careful. Poor countries do not have the luxury to criticise when they have a huge amount of vulnerable people. Rich countries, unfortunately, they too are selective.
Thirty years ago, you were one of the greatest cricket players of all time. You were a national hero. Does that whole life to you feel like a completely different world now? Did you know you were going to be prime minister of this country?
No, it was never my ambition because I was focused completely on cricket. All I had to do was talk about cricket and have a very easy life. And when I went into politics, it was the biggest challenge. And I would not have gone there had I not already gone through the mill in my life of facing ups and downs.
Are you enjoying this fight?
Yes. See, the way I look at life is the moment a challenge goes from your life your life stops. You stop growing. Right now I see this huge challenge in front of me. So I’m just focused on that. What happens after that? I don’t know. Well, the challenge is Pakistan really. Unfortunately, we are struggling right now. To get Pakistan out of this quagmire is going to be probably the most phenomenal thing that anyone could ever do.
The post We Interviewed Pakistan’s Ex Prime Minister Imran Khan As the Government Tries to Arrest Him appeared first on VICE.
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