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Παρασκευή, 21 Ιουνίου, 2024

Questioning the Army – Pakistan’s most dangerous business

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Siegfried O. Wolf

Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at SADF (Coordinator: Democracy Research Programme); he was educated at the Institute of Political Science (IPW) and South Asia Institute (SAI), both Heidelberg University. Additionally he is member (affiliated researcher) of the SAI as well as a former research fellow at IPW and Centre de Sciences Humaines (New Delhi, India). Dr Wolf works as a consultant to NATO-sponsored periodic strategic independent research and assessment of Afghanistan-Pakistan issues.

Pakistan is in a state of shock! Two horrifying events, the killing of one of the country’s most prominent journalists and the very recent assassination attempt on a former prime minister, outraged the citizenry, and roiled the country’s politics. The growing belief that both incidents might be linked contributes to a growing loss of faith by the public in the state and its institutions – especially security sector agents.

On Sunday, October 23, 2022, the prominent Pakistani journalist and former television news anchor Arshad Sharif was killed by police forces in Kenya. Arshad was known as a vocal supporter of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was initially backed by the army’s top brass. However, after PM Khan lost the support of the military leadership and was ousted from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)[1], and as his administration was removed in April this year, Sharif became a fierce critic of the country’s military and the newly installed government of PM Shehbaz Sharif. Arshad’s investigative work aimed to expose the endemic corruption in the country; this apparently created unease among the highest levels of the civilian and military leaderships.

According to an CNN report, Arshad Sharif fled the country in August due to sedition charges levelled against him for allegedly criticizing state institutions and “abetting mutiny” within the military.’[2] Relatives, friends, and close colleagues all stressed that Sharif left Pakistan ‘to save his life’. He received death threats and felt threatened by the authorities, namely by the police and the country’s leading military intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).[3] Arshad was seeking shelter in the UAE; however, he had to face ‘harassment by Pakistani officials’ in Dubai as well[4], and was forced to flee to Kenya.[5] Obviously, his attempt to hide in the African state failed.

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Critics of the Pakistani army and/or opponents of the current Shehbaz Sharif administration ‘believe that he [Arshad] was targeted in a plot organised in Pakistan.’ The fact that the Kenyan police ‘has issued contradictory statements regarding the shooting’ further enhances speculation among observers, politicians, and the press. Many hold simply that the investigative journalist has been assassinated.

Arshad’s killing shocked not only the Pakistani public but also the press community worldwide. Both domestic and international organisations (such as the United Nations) have called for a swift, full, and transparent investigation on the matter. Considering the long record of extrajudicial killings and other atrocities conducted by the police and special security forces,[6] as well as the poor investigation of such cases in Kenya, it remains doubtful that Arshad’s death will be clarified soon, if at all.

However, the fact that Arshad – a journalist uncompromisingly dedicated to the right of freedom of expression – had to flee his own country, was persecuted at home as well as abroad by Pakistani authorities, and was finally murdered sheds light on several unfortunate political trajectories in Pakistan.

 It highlights first, and once again, that all human and fundamental political rights and especially the freedom of press are not respected in Pakistan. Reporters without Borders (RSF), which classified Pakistan in the 157th position (out of 180) on its Press Freedom Index 2022 (in 2021, it was ranked 145th out of 180; clearly the situation is getting worse), considered that ‘Pakistan is one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists’. The Paris-based Press Freedom Charity (watchdog) further stated that ‘[a]ny journalist who crosses the red lines dictated by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – an intelligence agency offshoot – is liable to be the target of in-depth surveillance that could lead to abduction and detention for varying lengths of time in the state’s prisons or less official jails. Furthermore, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s leading military intelligence agency, is prepared to silence any critic once and for all.’

The deteriorating working, living, and security conditions of journalists (and other independent thinkers and writers in Pakistan) brings another worrying phenomenon into the forefront: the safety of Pakistani dissidents abroad. As discussed in an earlier SADF publication, there are numerous other instances of Pakistani journalists in exile, for example in the European Union (EU), which have faced harassment by Pakistani authorities (or pro-Pakistani elements) – or even murder, as in the killing of Sajid Hussain Baloch in Sweden. According to Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk of the RSF, and according to reports of the watchdog, many such cases have apparent links to the ISI. In this context, it is interesting to note that Arshad pursued its investigative work on maldevelopments within the military and civilian spheres both in Dubai and in Kenya.[7]

The recent assassination attempt on former PM Imran Khan thus gains additional momentum and political brisance. As indicated above, Khan himself, like his supporters, has become a staunch critic of the current “establishment”. Since Khan’s fall from formal power, ‘he has been rallying against the military and government, delivering fiery speeches calling for fresh elections.’ During his protest march to Islamabad (‘Long March’[8]),  Khan was shot and wounded on November 3. One of Khan’s co-party workers was killed – and several political aides were injured. Khan’s spokesperson Raoof Hasan blamed the ‘Pakistani government for being “directly involved” in the attack’. According to Asad Umar, secretary-general of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) party, Khan has accused Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and senior officials (including interior minister Rana Sanaullah and Major General Faisal Naseer) of being behind a conspiracy to assassinate him. Although no evidence for such claims has yet been provided, many observers are convinced that Khan’s criticisms on the army leadership and the government not only became sharper, but also – and most worryingly for the establishment – were most effective in recent local elections. Most noteworthy, Khan’s PTI was ‘taking control of a crucial provincial assembly in Punjab, defeating the PML-N [Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz] party, led at the national level by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.’ According to the BBC, ‘[m]any saw this as a sign of what could happen if early national elections were held.’ That the country’s election commission disqualified him from holding public office for five years last month – based on questionable charges[9] (particularly when compared to the “verdict”)- strengthen the notion of a conspiracy orchestrated by state institutions against Khan.

Today, the country is witnessing ‘growing discontentment’ about what is happening to people brave enough to question the country’s establishment. If the military leadership and the government continue to pursue the violent silencing of critics and fail to ensure fundamental political rights for Pakistan’s citizens, the mounting anger in the streets could escalate to unprecedented, dramatic heights.


Al Jazeera. (2022, November 3). Pakistan’s ex-PM Imran Khan was shot: What, where and why?

Baloch, S. M. (2022, November 3). Imran Khan wounded in ‘assassination attempt’ in Pakistan. The Guardian.

Basit, A. (2022, April 25). Pakistan’s Military Ends Its Experiment With Hybrid Democracy. Foreign Policy.

Gul, A. (2022, October 25). Body of Reputed Pakistani Journalist Killed in Kenya Flown Home Amid Calls for Probe. Voice of America (VoA).

Hussain, A. (2022, October 24). Outspoken Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif killed in Kenya. Al Jazeera.

Igunza, E. (2022, October 29). Arshad Sharif: Mystery over killing of Pakistani journalist in Kenya. BBC.

Khan, S. (2020, July 4). Fears grow for Pakistani journalist missing in Sweden. Deutsche Welle.

Kimeu, C., & Baloch, S. M. (2022, October 24). Pakistani journalist killed by police in Kenya ‘was case of mistaken identity’. The Guardian.

Malalo, H., & Peshimam, G. N. (2022, October 25). Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif killed in police shooting in Kenya. Reuters.

Pasha, K. (2022, November 4). Imran Khan ally accuses Pakistan prime minister of being behind shooting. Financial Times.

Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty’s Radio Mashaal (2022, October 24). Pakistani Journalist Shot By Mistake By Nairobi Police, Kenyan Authorities Say. Gandhara.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF). (2020, March 30). Concern about Pakistani dissident journalist’s disappearance in Sweden.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF). (2022). Pakistan. Country Report

Saifi, S., Feleke, B., & Nasser, I. (2022, October 24). Arshad Sharif, prominent journalist who fled Pakistan, killed in shooting in Kenya. CNN.

Tan, Y. (2022, November 4). Imran Khan attack: How ex-Pakistan PM’s comeback ended in shooting. BBC.

Wolf, S. O. (2020, May 11). Are Pakistani dissidents safe in Europe? SADF Comment, No. 229. Brussels: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).

Wolf, S. O. (2022, April 1). The end for Khan? SADF Comment, No. 229. Brussels: South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).

[1] Khan was removed from the PMO through a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022.

[2] He had interviewed channel opposition politician Shahbaz Gill in his popular political talk show “Power Play” at the private ARY news. Gill was a close aide of former PM Imran Khan. Following the interview, Gill was also charged with sedition by the Pakistani police – for making “anti-state comments.’ More concretely, Gill stated that ‘junior officers in Pakistan’s military should disobey orders that went against “the will of the majority.”’ After the controversial interview, Arshad’s programme was banned and the ARY channel was ‘briefly taken off air in August for airing “false, hateful and seditious” content’, ‘fanning “anti-military sentiment”.’ Only after the ARY Network “distanced itself” from Arshad was the broadcaster allowed to resume its operations.

[3] It is reported that Sharif even lodged a petition to a court in Islamabad through his lawyer Shoaib Razzaq, ‘saying the security forces were violating his fundamental rights.’

[4] According to Arshad’s lawyer, the ‘Pakistani government had approached authorities in Dubai with a request to have him extradited to Pakistan’.

[5] One of the few countries offering Visas to Pakistani nationals on arrival – and in which he had personal connections.

[6] Missing Voices Kenya, an organisation that monitors killings by police forces, has recorded over 1,286 such cases since 2007, and 100 this year alone.

[7] Kenyan investigative journalist John Allan Namu said to the BBC ‘that he had been interviewed for a yet-to-be-released documentary that Sharif was working on. A trailer for the film shows that it is an expose on corruption in Pakistan.’

[8] The protest march started on October 28 in Lahore and was expected to reach Islamabad on November 11.

[9] Khan got accused by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) of corruption by ‘incorrectly declaring details of presents from foreign dignitaries and proceeds from their alleged sale.’ Subsequently, the ECP has disqualified him from holding on to his current seat in the National Assembly.


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