Pakistan: Imran Khan Speaks Out

Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricket legend and now vociferous opposition politician, hardly looked like a hunted man. Sitting in a supporter's comfortable Lahore home and dressed in a freshly pressed white salwar kameez, Khan, 55, appeared and sounded confident. For 11 days, ever since the police burst into his home early in the morning of Nov. 4, the day after Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced emergency rule, he had successfully eluded the security forces by surreptitiously moving to a different house daily and largely avoiding talking on his cell phone. He has been quietly meeting with members of the small Movement for Justice Party he founded 11 years ago, with some students and with other opposition politicians who remain at large in an effort to unite their fractious forces and kick-start a public protest movement against Musharraf and his emergency. In an exclusive interview yesterday, which turned out to be his last before he was arrested today at Lahore's Punjab University following an ugly encounter with Islamist students, he talked with NEWSWEEK's Ron Moreau about his plans to challenge the president. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did you escape from the police [on Nov. 4]?
Imran Khan:
At 1:30 in the morning these cops suddenly burst in my house. They were very rough and rude with my 85-year-old father and me. I asked to see an arrest warrant, which they didn't have. I had a feeling they were going to take me in straightaway. That's when I took the decision that I'd better get out. I went out the back, jumped over two back walls and made it to a cousin's house. Since then I've been moving everyday. Obviously he [Musharraf] had learned a lesson from the Burmese generals of severe repression: beat up and put everyone in jail, and then a few days later say everyone's with me because no one's in the streets.

What's your plan of action underground?
I've had a few narrow escapes. Lahore is such a big city I have so many places to go, because basically everyone is anti-Musharraf here. I'm organizing my own party and trying to launch a students' movement to fight for democracy. I'm tying up with Qazi Hussain Ahmed [the leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party] and [exiled former prime minister] Nawaz Sharif. We have decided to go into an electoral alliance, trying to get everyone to boycott the elections [which Musharraf has announced will be held under emergency rule before next Jan. 9]. This election will be a total fraud unless the emergency is lifted and the Supreme Court is restored. We don't recognize these present puppet judges. If the [former judges] aren't [reinstated] then Musharraf will have achieved his aim of the emergency; to install his own judges. With his own judges he can rig the elections and muzzle the media and finally get a puppet parliament.

Can you bring in Benazir Bhutto to your alliance now that she says her party will likely boycott the polls?
If Benazir joins us in boycotting the elections then the polls have no credibility. But there's a lot of suspicion here. What we don't want is for her to use us as a bargaining chip and then cut another separate deal for herself with Musharraf. We need to know what is the game she is playing, because her credibility with us is low. If Benazir makes a categorical statement about a boycott, then, of course, we have a tremendous opportunity of mobilizing Pakistanis, because people will get the impression this is a joint front. That will put a lot of pressure on Musharraf.

But can the opposition get together in the face of Musharraf's emergency?
We have to. He is in control because opposition parties do deals with him. Qazi, Nawaz and I have been saying that without a street movement this guy is not going to go. Everything he [Musharraf] has promised he has reneged on. He is clearly not going to leave power voluntarily, so that's why we need a street movement. That's the only thing that dictators in the past have been affected by and what the army looks to. When the army realizes that he has become a liability, it will get rid of him. But he took us by surprise and put everyone in jail. There's no leadership left. And they've really beaten up people this time. The workers have really been thrashed. There have even been broken bones. Even women human rights workers were shoved around.

What can the students do?
The young are our biggest constituency, and I think we have a structure there with the students. So I have to come out into the open to mobilize the students, which I'll do at Punjab University [Wednesday]. I have a way of sneaking in. I'll try to get out [afterward] if possible. I have one or two exit routes. I'll be with my running shoes. But if I don't [escape] it doesn't matter. We've had successful student movements in the past, in 1968 and 1977, that have brought governments down. Since then the students have gone completely dormant. But the students are key to this whole thing. When I gave a lecture [to students the day the emergency was announced on Nov. 3] the talk became a demonstration movement. The students stood behind me and said we will join your protest. In my opinion all the signs are there. I think the students are ready. Even faculty is starting to protest. It's just the beginning.

Why should Pakistanis take you seriously when your party is small and you are your party's only member of parliament?
My party has the fastest-growing vote bank in Pakistan. My own personal ratings are very high. If there were a direct presidential election I'd probably do well. But if we fight this next election this party will become a force. The reason people supported [the deposed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry] is because he defied the dictator. People looked upon him as genuine opposition to Musharraf. Similarly, my vote bank is increasing simply because people perceive me as someone who is not going to compromise. For 11 years I've been saying there can be no democracy or prosperity without an independent justice system. My Movement for Justice is based on an independent judiciary. Suddenly all the lawyers [who were] supporting Chaudhry adopted me, welcomed me with garlands and took me on their shoulders. That's how the party has taken off. We will do well in the next election. And we will become a player in the next assembly and a national party.

Are you frustrated by the Bush administration's seemingly continued solid support for Musharraf?
George Bush is creating anti-Americanism in Pakistan. How else can Pakistanis feel when Bush is backing one man who has destroyed our Supreme Court, every institution in the country, is sitting with the biggest crooks and criminals in the country, and presiding over our most corrupt government, according to Transparency International. Militancy and radicalization in Pakistan are increasing at such a phenomenal rate now that we actually think that our future is at stake. All thanks to Musharraf. And for this one man, Bush is going to sacrifice 160 million Pakistanis as if they were sheep? He is worse than the shah of Iran. If he succeeds in imposing Musharraf for another five years, who is going to take up the space? The mosques and the militants. They are spreading.

What's your solution for extremism and terrorism?
Terrorism is our biggest concern. It's so big that our country is likely to implode. Musharraf is perceived as a pro-American, anti-Islam man on an American mission. So what you are seeing in [the tribal territories of] Waziristan and [neighboring] Swat is that people are siding with the other side against the Pakistan Army. Pakistani soldiers are dying, and no one is mourning them. The Pakistan Army must be withdrawn from the tribal area and negotiations opened with the people. It's not too late. The aerial bombing is just driving more people to support the other side. It's not a winnable war and there's no end in sight.

But hasn't Musharraf tried peace deals with the militants before?
Fundamentalism in Pakistan is a lot easier to deal with if there is a genuine democratic government, and not one that is perceived as a stooge of the Bush administration. The minute people realize that the government does not have a foreign agenda they will listen. The Americans are making a mistake. They think Musharraf is the solution because the army under his control. But how long can he keep the army under control the way the army is taking such a beating. They are giving up without a fight. I think it's a matter of time before the army rebels against him. It's unsustainable.

Join the Discussion