Tarar: government learned to respond with ‘iron hands’ after protests

WASHINGTON: The law minister says he expects a tougher armed response in the event of any repeat of political violence in the country, accusing followers of former prime minister Imran Khan of exploiting the initial “motherly” response to fiery rampages last month.

In an interview with The Associated Press during a visit to Washington, Azam Nazeer Tarar issued some of the most extensive comments from the government on its response to the fiery protests last month against the detention of charismatic Khan.

Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government and army are now defending their controversial actions in pursuing both civilian and military trials for at least 102 protesters.

“The state’s reaction was like a motherly reaction towards the citizens,” Tarar told the AP, adding: “That is why the government has decided to deal with iron hands and to make it an example, to ensure that no such incidents take place in the future.”

In the interview late last week, Tarar also defended law enforcement and military officials against criticism that they didn’t do enough at the time to stop the violence. Any military response to restore law and order would have required prior authorisation from the civilian government, he said.

He described a military and civilian leadership taken by surprise by the attacks on military installations and other sites. The leaders opted to refrain from harming civilians, the minister said. But now, the response is tougher.

“I would say we have learned a lesson,” from the incident, he said, “that if you don’t exercise enough authority and force, you may end up with these kinds of incidents, which […] was very painful.”

Tarar also said that legal authorities would not be deterred from prosecuting Khan if investigators determine he appeared to play a criminal role in the attacks, despite concerns that could unleash a fresh wave of violence.

Khan and his followers have been working for his return to political power, alleging that Americans were behind the contentious 2022 no-confidence vote that cost him the premiership.

The demonstrations erupted among supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party after authorities illegally arrested Khan, dragging him from a courthouse in Islamabad.

Thousands of demonstrators attacked the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, stormed an air base in Mianwali in Punjab and torched a building housing state-run Radio Pakistan in Peshawar.

The violence subsided only after Khan was released on an order from Supreme Court.

At least 10 people were killed in clashes between Khan’s supporters and police and since then, and police have arrested more than 5,000 people in connection with the riots. Most have been freed on bail pending trial.

The military said Monday that it has fired three senior army officers over their failure to prevent the attacks.

In addition to prosecutions in civilian courts, the military says it has received cases of 102 civilians for their trials in the military courts over their involvement and the accused persons will get the right to a fair trial.

Asked how many civilians he expects to ultimately be tried in military courts in connection with the May 9 violence, Tarar said he did not expect the 102 figure to increase “manyfold.”

When asked why the military didn’t do more to stop the attacks as they were happening, Tarar said nobody in the military thought people would breach military installations, “because the military protect the homeland.”

The same, he said, goes for the attacks on public monuments to national heroes, saying such a thing is “unheard of in our history.”

Amnesty International has objected to the military’s plans, observing that trying civilians in military courts is a violation of international law.

The rights group said it had documented numerous rights violations in military courts’ past trials of civilians, including lack of due process and transparency, coerced confessions, and executions after “grossly unfair” proceedings.

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