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Pakistan's Imran Khan talks of prosecuting opponents as they try to prosecute him


Imran Khan, the onetime prime minister of Pakistan, has had an eventful month. Police tried to arrest him in his home city of Lahore. Crowds of his supporters blocked that. Later, Khan started for court to face corruption charges, but as police battled supporters in the streets, a judge postponed the hearing. Yesterday, the onetime prime minister came on the line with us.

IMRAN KHAN: Yes, it's been exciting times here.

INSKEEP: If we looked out the window or over the wall right now, what would we see out there?

KHAN: You would see a lot of my supporters who are extremely worried that they are either going to abduct me or kill me.

INSKEEP: He jokingly referred to his location as Fortress Lahore, and he gave his view of the political crisis inside a U.S. ally that is also one of the most populous nations on Earth. He was prime minister there for 3 1/2 years before the parliament ousted him.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Non-English language spoken).

INSKEEP: He led protests against the replacement government, but authorities have now accused him of a variety of crimes like the one they tried to arrest him for this month. He's accused of improperly accepting gifts while in office, although he denies this and many other charges.

KHAN: What is happening is that the government is petrified of elections. They're scared that we're going to win the elections. Therefore, they are trying everything to get me out of the way, including assassination, because I survived an assassination attempt - very lucky to be alive.

INSKEEP: The last time we talked with Imran Khan on MORNING EDITION, he was recovering from gunshot wounds. He's leading protests against the current government, which is also facing economic crisis and devastating floods. We got some perspective on all this from Diaa Hadid, who is our correspondent in the capital city, Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Most people I speak to when I'm walking around just doing regular interviews are cutting down on food to get by.

INSKEEP: About 5 million people are near starvation, half of them kids.

HADID: Pakistan is sort of - I'm trying to think of the word that - it's like it's gripped in a spiraling crisis it seems unable to get itself out of. And that is dire. I mean, ultimately, it's the fifth most populous country in the world. It's a nuclear power. It's geographically in very strategic crossroads. And all the institutions that once could have played a part in smoothing out this crisis seem to be divided themselves and polarized because of the crisis.

INSKEEP: The last time Imran Khan oversaw this country, he talked of rebuilding the economy but finally lost his job. He lost the support of both the military, which holds great power, and the United States, which wields great influence. At one point, he accused a U.S. diplomat of having him removed. He now says a Pakistani general poisoned U.S. opinion against him. Our colleague Diaa Hadid says Khan does have widespread public support.

HADID: It's a protest vote against what they see.

INSKEEP: And he told us he hopes to use his popularity against the coalition government that removed him.

KHAN: I don't know whether they'll eventually end up disqualifying me, but it doesn't matter because the party I lead now has a popularity wave unprecedented in our history. So whether I'm in jail or not, the party is going to sweep the elections anyway.

INSKEEP: Are you confident there will be an election at the appointed time?

KHAN: Now, that's my worry because according to the constitution, when we dissolved our two provincial governments, the elections had to be held within 90 days.

INSKEEP: Pakistan's government has, in fact, been delaying provincial elections beyond that time. This, in turn has led to questions about whether the national government will allow fall elections that it's expected to lose.

I'd like to know what would happen should your party return to power, in one specific respect. Your opponents, when speaking with us, have sometimes justified the crackdown on you, the crackdown on media, the crackdown on your supporters by saying that you too cracked down on the media and other critics when you were in power. If you return to power, would that cycle go on?

KHAN: Steve, my 3 1/2 years were the most liberal 3 1/2 years in our history. I mean, the - we never interfered with the judiciary, which was always the case in the past. We never interfered with the media. The only time there were problems with the media were not because of us, because of the army, because of the army establishment.

Right now, I mean, in five months, not just me, all my senior leadership has cases against them. They're running from one court to the other. One of our best investigative journalists was hounded out of Pakistan and then murdered in Kenya. Three of our top investigative journalists are outside Pakistan now.

INSKEEP: Well, we will just note that our reporting has shown and also State Department reports and other things have shown that there were disappearances and media critics silenced in past governments, including during the time when you were prime minister. You're telling me that was the army and not you, although that still leaves the question, if you're back in power, what will your attitude be toward the people you accuse of persecuting you now?

KHAN: My firm belief - and this is because I've been all over the world as a professional international sportsman - the difference between rich countries and poor countries is not lack of resources. It's rule of law. Countries that have rule of law prosper, countries that don't have rule of law become banana republics. So our fight in Pakistan is to bring the powerful elite under the law.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that there are people, perhaps in the elites, who need to be prosecuted in your point of view?

KHAN: Look, the rule of law means anyone who breaks the law, you actually - they are held accountable.

INSKEEP: Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, speaking to us yesterday from Lahore. Our colleague Diaa Hadid was listening to that conversation from her base in Pakistan. And Diaa, what do you make of what you heard?

HADID: Well, Steve, I think by talking to you, Khan is actually speaking to Washington. I think he wants to project a sense of who he is. But what I find interesting is that he still claims the Biden administration was involved in his ouster, but he also says his people are meeting the U.S. ambassador here. So his critics say, which is it? They point to that and say he's erratic.

And they also note he did crack down on media and did crack down on the judiciary during his time in power. But the thing is, Khan is popular for that very promise to crack down on corruption. Many Pakistanis here are skipping meals because they can't afford food. And there's a lot of anger against this government.

INSKEEP: And you have found that popularity, I know, as you've reported around the country. By speaking with us, is he also trying to protect himself?

HADID: I think so. I think the more Khan strengthens his international profile, it raises the cost of delegitimizing him politically. It raises the cost of arresting him or even harming him. And Khan says there's a plan to do that.

Now, I've just come back from a press conference with the defense minister, Khawaja Asif, and he dismisses those claims. He says those allegations of seeking to harm Khan is just to whip up his supporters. He says Khan talking about cracking down on corruption is a bit rich when he skips court cases and his followers clash with supporters. And Khawaja Asif says their elections will happen on time. And he's calling for talks with Khan to defuse this crisis.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Diaa Hadid, thanks for the insights. Really appreciate it.

HADID: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.