The political crisis sparked by former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s removal from power in 2022 has since given way to a major crackdown on what remains of his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The campaign by the military has included a wave of killings and detentions targeting Khan’s supporters, including journalists believed to be aligned with his movement.
The impact has not been limited to those with ties to only Pakistan itself. Some of those caught up in the dragnet are American and British citizens and residents, detained in Pakistan after repression escalated in response to a series of demonstrations against the military this past May.
Pakistan is widely seen to be devolving into a police state, with thousands arrested on politicized charges over the past few months. Exact numbers of foreign nationals detained in this sweep are unclear, but at least one dual citizen, a Pakistani American named Khadijah Shah, is known to be in custody of the military.
This June, in response to questions about her case, the U.S. government announced that it had requested consular access to Shah from the Pakistani government. Shah is a high-profile Pakistani American fashion designer, and her case has received an exceptional amount of media coverage. The U.S. government has said little about her fate. As for other U.S. citizens in Pakistan, the U.S. hasn’t spoken of any attempts to determine whether other Americans may be detained there. (A State Department spokesperson said, “Consular officers have visited Ms. Shaw three times since her arrest. The last visit was on July 27, 2023. We continue to monitor Ms. Shah’s case closely.”)
Some Pakistanis with ties to the West say there are likely many other Pakistanis with foreign citizenship and residency in custody. Shahzad Akbar, formerly a legal activist in Pakistan and later an anti-corruption minister in Khan’s government, fled the crackdown to the United Kingdom, where he lives as a resident. Akbar said that many more American and British Pakistanis are likely in prison in Pakistan over the crackdown, with their families fearful of coming forward due to possible repercussions toward their loved ones.
“The line that we have heard from foreign governments is that what is happening is Pakistan’s internal matter, even though many of those detained have been foreign nationals of Pakistani descent,” Akbar said. “But when you know what is happening is political repression of dissidents, your own intelligence confirms this, and your citizens are impacted, you cannot merely dismiss it as an internal matter.”
“The line that we have heard from foreign governments is that what is happening is Pakistan’s internal matter, even though many of those detained have been foreign nationals of Pakistani descent.”
A State Department spokesperson said, “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas. We are in close contact with Pakistani authorities on this issue and expect them to afford all detainees fair and transparent treatment in accordance with Pakistan’s laws and international obligations.”
Akbar’s own family has been impacted by the crackdown. This May, his brother in Pakistan was arrested by security forces to pressure him to return to the country from the United Kingdom. “My brother was detained in the middle of the night on May 28,” said Akbar. “Dozens of armed paramilitaries and counterterrorism police surrounded his house, broke down the door, and took him into custody.”
Akbar said the security forces wanted him to testify against Khan about the corruption charges that the former prime minister is currently imprisoned for.
“I have been receiving messages through backchannels since then telling me that, if I want my brother back, I should return to Pakistan from the U.K. and testify against Imran Khan,” he said.
Akbar refused the demand to return and denounce Khan. His brother remains in custody without charge.
“I’m a professional,” he said. “I was hired by the government to perform a role. I’m not even a member of any party. I never thought things would come to the point that the military would kidnap my brother and hold him hostage with no chargeable offense just to put pressure on me.”
U.S. Pressure to Oust Khan
The United States and British governments have both deemed the crisis over Khan’s removal an internal affair of the Pakistani government, even as the crackdown on his party has extended into a general attack on Pakistan’s civil society.
A statement by Human Rights Watch earlier this year criticized the Pakistani government over the detentions of political activists following the May uprising. “Many have been charged under vague and overbroad laws prohibiting rioting and creating threats to public order,” the group said.
In addition to extrajudicial detentions, the government has also been accused of torturing detainees in custody.
The issue of Pakistanis with dual nationality and residency caught up in this dragnet is particularly significant given the U.S. government’s own apparent role in helping trigger the crisis. The Intercept reported earlier this month on a classified Pakistani government cable, long referred to by Khan in public appearances before he went to prison. The document recounts a meeting where U.S. diplomats threatened their Pakistani counterparts with “isolation” if Khan remained in power and promising rewards should he be removed in a 2022 no-confidence vote.
Since the vote was passed, Pakistan’s economy and political system have been thrown into an escalating crisis that has now resulted in the country veering toward full-fledged military dictatorship. This week, Pakistan’s president added a new twist to the saga after he denied signing off on a set of laws — a constitutional requirement — that would have granted sweeping new authoritarian powers to the Pakistani military.