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Pakistan Arrests Opposition MP for Tweeting Against Powerful Military Chief

Pakistani Senator Azam Swati is seen in a photo from his Twitter.
Pakistani Senator Azam Swati is seen in a photo from his Twitter.

Authorities in Pakistan arrested a veteran opposition lawmaker on sedition charges Thursday after he had criticized the country’s powerful military chief.

Senator Azam Swati, who represents the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former prime minister Imran Khan in the upper house of parliament, was taken into custody in a predawn raid on his residence in the capital, Islamabad.

A criminal complaint filed by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) against Swati under a controversial cybercrime law accuses him of tweeting a “highly obnoxious and intimidating message” against Pakistani armed forces and their chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

The 66-year-old senator’s tweet on Wednesday evening was a response to a court order in the eastern city of Lahore acquitting Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his son, Hamza Shehbaz, in a high-profile money laundering case.

“Mr. Bajwa congratulations to you and few with you. Your plan is really working and all criminals are getting free at cost of this country. With these thugs getting free You have legitimise(d) corruption,” Swati wrote on Twitter.

The FIA complaint against Swati alleged that he “intimidated” state institutions “by using false information, which is likely to incite, any officer, soldier,…to mutiny.”

“Such intimidating tweets of blaming and naming is a mischievous act of subversion to create a rift between personnel of the armed forces and an attempt to harm the state of Pakistan,” it added.

Pakistan’s so-called Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act-2016 makes online “defamation” of authorities, including the military and judiciary, a criminal offense with harsh penalties.

Swati appeared before a court in Islamabad, where the judge sent him to police custody for two days for further investigation and set the next hearing for Saturday.

Speaking to reporters outside the court, the senator said that his only crime was naming the army chief in his tweet. He accused security forces of torturing and stripping him naked before arresting him. Officials did not respond to the accusations nor could VOA independently verify them.

Defense attorney Babar Awan alleged his client’s house was raided without a search warrant by what he said were “midnight jackals” and condemned the arrest.

The PTI party condemned the arrest and demanded Swati be immediately released. The party alleged the arrest was part of a government crackdown on political opponents and dissenting voices in Pakistan.

“Those who have allowed the biggest criminals not only to evade accountability after stealing billions from the nation but to come to power again are destined to be humiliated,” Khan tweeted while condemning Swati’s arrest.

Shahbaz Gill, a close aid of former prime minister Khan, was also arrested and allegedly subjected to custodial torture in August over allegations of “abetting mutiny or attempting to seduce a soldier, sailor or airman from his duty.” Gill was granted bail by a high court after five weeks in custody.

On Tuesday, a prominent Supreme Court attorney, Aitizaz Ahsan, in televised remarks, also blamed Bajwa for playing a role in the acquittal of Sharif family members. Authorities, however, have not yet taken any legal action against Ahsan, a central leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, which is a key partner in the Sharif-led coalition government.

“The cases against them (the Sharif family) are open and shut. Mr. Bajwa has helped them in quashing these cases and the way they are being acquitted makes Bajwa guilty of committing a serious crime,” Ahsan alleged while talking to reporters in Lahore.

Government officials have not yet commented on allegations levelled by both Swati and Ahsan.

Bajwa, who is due to retire in November, and his aides, maintain the military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 75 years of existence, has nothing to do with the political happenings in the country.

Khan was removed from office in April of this year in a parliamentary no-confidence vote advanced by the Sharif-led then-opposition alliance.

The ousted cricket-star-turned-politician alleges without evidence that the vote was orchestrated by the United States in collusion with Sharif and the Pakistani military. Both Washington and Islamabad deny the accusation.

Khan’s popularity has skyrocketed since his dismissal from power and tens of thousands of people have attended dozens of public rallies his party has organized in recent months. The populist opposition leader has been demanding early elections in Pakistan.