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Chuck Schumer Privately Warns Pakistan: Don’t Kill Imran Khan in Prison

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warned in a conversation with Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington that the safety of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan was a high priority of the United States, multiple sources familiar with the exchange told The Intercept.

The warning issued late last month by Schumer, the most powerful Democrat in Congress, to Pakistan came after intense activism by members of the Pakistani diaspora amid concerns that the Pakistani military may harm Khan, the former prime minister who was ousted from office in 2022.

“The Pakistani American diaspora has felt let down by Washington’s failure to engage power brokers in Pakistan and hold them accountable for blatant violations of human rights.”

“Chuck Schumer speaking to the ambassador regarding the safety of Imran Khan is very constructive,” Mohammad Munir Khan, a Pakistani American political activist in the U.S., told The Intercept. “The Pakistani American diaspora has felt let down by Washington’s failure to engage power brokers in Pakistan and hold them accountable for blatant violations of human rights, and destruction of basic fundamentals of democracy.”

Imran Khan is currently incarcerated on corruption charges that are widely seen as politically motivated. Khan, who is regarded as the most popular politician in Pakistan, was removed from power in an April 2022 no-confidence vote orchestrated by the country’s powerful military establishment and encouraged by the U.S. Since then, Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, has faced a brutal repression that has raised international alarms and been denounced by human rights groups.

The concerns about Khan’s life that prompted Schumer’s call to the Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan reflect a growing fear that the military may deal with Khan’s stubborn popularity by simply putting an end to his life behind bars. (Schumer’s office declined to comment for this story. The Pakistani Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The outreach from Schumer, who represents a large, vocal Pakistani American community in New York, came as a new governing coalition in the South Asian country seeks to consolidate power despite public disaffection over a February election rife with fraud.

In addition to banning PTI, Pakistan engaged in heavy repression ahead of the February vote. A record turnout suggested PTI-aligned candidates had the upper hand. Ignoring widespread fraud, however, a coalition of parties supported by the Pakistani military successfully formed a government led by Shehbaz Sharif in the vote’s aftermath.

The international community, including the U.S., noted voting irregularities, and credible allegations arose of vote rigging and flagrant fraud in the election.

“There is undeniable evidence, which the State Department agrees with, that there were problems with this election,” Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, told The Intercept in March. At the time, Casar and other members of Congress had just called on President Joe Biden to withhold recognition of the government, but Washington’s ambassador to Pakistan congratulated Sharif in early March.

“There is undeniable evidence, which the State Department agrees with, that there were problems with this election.”

Foreign policy experts in Washington said the Biden administration’s approach risked transgressing democratic principles in the name of security. Matt Duss, executive vice president of the Center for International Policy, said, “This appears to be an example where the administration is allowing its security relationship with a foreign government to crowd out other critical concerns like democratic backsliding and human rights.”

Imran Khan himself has reportedly been held in dire conditions at a prison in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. Last month, his visitor privileges were abruptly suspended for two weeks, prompting fears from his supporters about his physical conditions in custody. Earlier this month, one of his lawyers claimed that his personal physician was not being allowed to see him in jail. Khan’s wife, who is imprisoned on politically motivated charges of an un-Islamic marriage and graft, has also reportedly suffered health problems due to conditions of her confinement, according to remarks from her lawyer this week.

In a statement given to reporters from prison and later shared on social media, Khan, who was wounded in an attempted assassination in November 2022 at a political rally, alleged that there had been a plot to kill him while behind bars. Khan suggested his fate was in the hands of Gen. Asim Munir, Pakistan’s powerful army chief.

“Let it be known that if anything happens to me or my wife, it’ll be him who will be responsible,” Khan said.

Schumer’s call to the Pakistani ambassador, however, may play into the military’s calculations about killing Khan. “A senior Democrat influential in the Biden administration is sending a warning, which is somewhat significant,” said Adam Weinstein, the deputy director of the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, adding that he did not believe the military would will Khan in prison.

As extreme as a step it would be, the military harming or even killing a leader it ousted, even one as popular as Khan, would fit a pattern in Pakistani history. Several Pakistani leaders have died violently in the past few decades after falling out with the military, some under murky circumstances, while others, like former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, were executed by military rulers after being deposed from power.

Although nominally led by a civilian government today, Pakistan’s military is widely known to call the shots in the country politically and is currently led by Munir, whose clashes with Khan and his party have been the main political storyline in the country for over a year.

For Pakistani activists in the U.S., the American relationship with Pakistan creates leverage that can be used to ensure that Khan is not murdered behind bars. Mohammad Munir Khan, the Pakistani American activist, said, “The least Washington can do is to ensure Imran Khan is not harmed physically.”

TOPSHOT - Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party supporters hold portraits of Pakistan's former prime minister Imran Khan, as they protest against the alleged skewing in Pakistan's national election, in Peshawar on March 10, 2024. Pakistan's election commission blocked lawmakers loyal to jailed ex-prime minister Imran Khan from taking a share of parliamentary seats reserved for women and minorities, after a poll marred by rigging claims. (Photo by Abdul MAJEED / AFP) (Photo by ABDUL MAJEED/AFP via Getty Images)

Supporters of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party hold a March 10, 2024, protest in Peshawar against election fraud.
Photo: Abdul Majeed/AFP via Getty Images

Capitol Hill Hearing

The U.S. has played an outsized role in Pakistan’s internal politics, especially over the past several years, including a pivotal role in Khan’s ouster from power. 

In August 2023, The Intercept reported on and published a classified Pakistani diplomatic cable — a contentious document that had become a centerpiece of political drama, though its contents had remained unknown — showing that Khan’s removal from power had taken place following intense pressure placed on the Pakistani government by U.S. State Department officials.

In the cable, Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, whose office covers South Asia at the State Department, is quoted as telling the Pakistani ambassador to Washington that the countries’ relations would be seriously damaged if Khan were to remain in power.

“I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington,” Lu said, according to the Pakistani cable.

Since Khan’s removal from power, the U.S. has worked closely with the new military-backed Pakistani regime. Pakistan provided weapons to Ukraine in exchange for the U.S. brokering a favorable International Monetary Fund loan package, according to previous reporting from The Intercept.

Before being imprisoned, Khan made frequent reference to the classified cypher and even claimed to be brandishing a physical copy during a political rally. He is now facing a lengthy prison sentence on charges related to his handling of classified information, in addition to the raft of corruption charges that initially landed him in custody.

Coming in the context of a broader crackdown on his party — which has including killings, extrajudicial disappearances, and torture targeting supporters of PTI and members of the press — most observers believe Khan’s continued imprisonment is a politically motivated gambit to keep him and his movement out of power.

Following this year’s election, with Casar and others in Congress raising questions about Khan’s removal and the vote, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing featuring Lu, the assistant secretary of state.

The sole person testifying, Lu denied that he had been involved in a “regime change” in Pakistan — a reference to Khan’s comments about his role and the content of the cable reported by The Intercept.

On the election, Lu paid lip service to concerns about how the ballot was carried off, while failing to outline what consequences there would be for the vote rigging.

“You have seen actions by our ambassador and our embassy,” Lu said, alluding the congratulations extended by the U.S. to Pakistan’s new prime minister. He then quickly added: “We are in every interaction with this government stressing the importance of accountability for election irregularities.”

“In the long term it has never worked out in the United States’ benefit to be seen as propping up illegitimate, military-led governments.”

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., raised the issue of Khan’s safety in detention at the hearing. Sherman urged Lu to meet directly with Khan in prison, earning applause from the mostly Pakistani audience in hand.

“Ensuring the safety of leaders, regardless of political differences, is paramount,” said Atif Khan, another Pakistan American diaspora activist. “Congressman Brad Sherman rightly advocated for accountability and protection, urging the US Ambassador to visit former Prime Minister Imran Khan and prioritize his well-being.”

While Khan’s fate hangs in the balance, members of Congress have warned that continued U.S. support for a government seen as illegitimate by most Pakistanis risks harming not just Pakistan, but also the U.S. position in a critical region.

“Promoting democracy is important in itself, but it’s in our interests as well,” Casar, the Texas Democrat, told The Intercept. “Regardless of the short-term military benefits, in the long term it has never worked out in the United States’ benefit to be seen as propping up illegitimate, military-led governments.”

The post Chuck Schumer Privately Warns Pakistan: Don’t Kill Imran Khan in Prison appeared first on The Intercept.

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