Two mango seasons: A long wait for Pakistan families hit by May 9 violence

As the Supreme Court debates the convictions of 85 people, families wait for their loved ones.

Violence broke out in different cities in Pakistan on May 9 last year, after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was detained briefly [Bilawal Arbab/EPA]By Abid HussainPublished On 10 May 202410 May 2024

Islamabad, Pakistan – It’s summertime, and mango season in Pakistan. But 25-year-old Amber* can’t stand the sight of the fruit, one of the country’s most famous exports.

Mangoes remind her of her jailed husband, Mohammad Zameer*. “My husband loves mangoes,” says the mother of three children from her home in Faisalabad, Pakistan’s third-largest city in the province of Punjab.

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On May 9, 2023, Zameer was on his way home after lunch with his brother late in the afternoon when he became one among thousands of people who were caught up in a maelstrom of protests that exploded on Pakistan’s streets after former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest. Khan’s supporters attacked government buildings and even military installations, after the former prime minister accused the country’s army of orchestrating his removal from power a year earlier.

The military cracked down on protesters, who were accused of what Pakistan’s government later described as an “attempted coup.” But rights groups say that many of the more than 9,000 people arrested across the country in the wake of the May 9 riots were not political activists, and some were bystanders picked up because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Zameer, 33, was among those arrested in Faisalabad. His family was confident he would be released soon. So Amber bought her husband’s favourite fruit to greet him with a mango shake when he returned home.

A year later, Amber — who was pregnant at the time — is effectively a single parent to their five-year-old son, three-year-old daughter and their youngest daughter, who was born after her husband’s arrest. And she’s still waiting to make a mango shake for Zameer.

“That summer ended, then the winters came and went, and now a new mango season is here, but my husband is yet to return home,” she says.

‘Dark chapter’

On May 9, nationwide protests erupted after Khan, the cricketer-turned-founder of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, was arrested during a court appearance in capital Islamabad over corruption charges.

His supporters stormed the house of a military commander in Lahore, partially burning it. That night, a mob tried to enter the heavily secured military headquarters in Rawalpindi town.

Faced with a scenario that Pakistan’s security establishment had never faced its history, law enforcement officials fired on attackers. At least 10 people were killed in the protests. And a country already reeling under a severe economic crisis found itself grappling with deepening political instability.

The PTI supporters’ anger stemmed from Khan’s allegation that the “establishment” – a euphemism for the army – was behind his sacking in April 2022 when he lost a no-confidence vote in parliament and had to cede power to a coalition headed by current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

Pakistan’s powerful military, which has directly ruled over the country for three decades and has enjoyed significant influence even under civilian governments, has consistently denied Khan’s allegations.

The military called the May 9 protests a “dark chapter” in Pakistan’s history and pledged to take strict action against the protesters.

Meanwhile, Khan — who was released on bail on May 12 — was eventually arrested in August, and has since been convicted in a spate of cases linked to corruption, state secrets and even the religious validity of his marriage. Those convictions in turn led to his disqualification from electoral politics. Khan could not contest in the national elections held in February this year, and remains in custody. The former prime minister has denied the charges against him, and has said they are politically motivated.

In the aftermath of the May 9 riots, 105 out of those who were arrested were charged under a section of the Official Secrets Act (OSA), which the government amended to broaden its scope. The amended law punishes anyone who “approaches, inspects, passes over or is in the vicinity of, or enters, attacks, destroys or otherwise undermines any prohibited place”.

These cases were heard in military courts, where the accused do not have the right to appeal verdicts in civilian courts. Access to lawyers in such cases is often at the discretion of the military, which otherwise provides a “friend of the accused” — a military official from the army’s legal department tasked to assist an accused person.

All 105 of them were convicted. In April, under instructions by Supreme Court of Pakistan, 20 of them were pardoned since their convictions were of less than a year.

The remaining 85 convictions — including Zameer’s — are currently on hold, due to a restraining order from the Supreme Court, which is currently hearing a case regarding the constitutionality of the military courts. But these 85 are still behind bars.

‘It’s my birthday next month’

It all began on the afternoon of May 9, Amber says. Zameer was almost home when he saw a large gathering of people outside a building near their house, which he realised was the local office of the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan’s military intelligence agency). They were Khan’s supporters, protesting his arrest.

Amber says Zameer took a video of the protest on his phone, then came back home. Later that day, Zameer, a real estate dealer who also owns a mobile phone shop, shared the video he had shot with some of his friends on WhatsApp.

A week later, Zameer was at his shop when four officials, two of them in police uniform, arrested him. His family was still grieving the loss of Zameer’s father in March 2023. Now they had a new shock to deal with.

“Zameer used to do a lot of social work and people in the area knew him,” Amber says. “He had never thought he could be arrested.” She said the officers were courteous during the arrest and the family believed Zameer would likely be released soon.

Zameer was kept in a Faisalabad jail where his brothers would visit him, while Amber stayed at home. “He [Zameer] would send messages for me, asking me to stay strong and look after myself since I was pregnant at the time,” she said.

Soon, however, Zameer was moved out of Faisalabad and for more than a month, the family had no idea where he had been taken. “Those days were the worst and the most difficult time of my life. We had no clue about his whereabouts or safety,” says Amber. Eventually, authorities told the family in July, Amber says, that Zameer had been taken to Sialkot, a major industrial hub in Punjab, about 250km (155 miles) from Faisalabad.

Amber, who gave birth to their daughter in July, says her life has been “a living hell” since her husband was taken away.

“Next month is my birthday,” she says. “But it will be the second consecutive year when he won’t be here with us.”

‘Don’t expect me to come save you’

Some 180 kilometers (111 miles) east of Faisalabad in Lahore, 26-year-old Asif Ali* remembers the firm warning he gave his brother Faran*, who is two years younger, on May 9.

Originally from Shangla district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a PTI stronghold, Ali had moved to Lahore in 2019 while Faran joined him two years later for an undergraduate degree in zoology from Punjab University.

Though avowed Khan supporters, Ali said the brothers were not politically active. However, as soon as Khan was arrested, Faran told his brother he wanted to join a PTI protest in Lahore.

“I repeatedly told him not to do that, but my brother is very stubborn. I warned him of the consequences, told him if you ever get arrested, don’t expect me to come save you,” Ali recalled.

When Faran did not return home by midnight, Ali started calling him on his mobile phone but was unable to connect. Faran, Ali learned later, had been among the protesters who had entered the Lahore residence of a military commander, known locally as Jinnah House, a building named after Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, who used to lived there. Protesters set fire to the building.

Faran was arrested with hundreds of others on the night of May 9.

They were taken to a local jail. Faran asked Ali to bring his textbooks — he had his annual college exams in less than a week. But the next day, Ali learned that Faran had been taken into the military’s direct custody. Ali did not hear from Faran for weeks.

“For the first few days, I kept lying to my parents about his disappearance. Then, I stopped taking their calls to avoid talking to them about Faran,” says Ali, who works as a marketing agent for a small business.

Faran never managed to appear for his exams and remains in military custody.

‘Where are the judgements?’

From mid-December through January, lawyer Khadija Siddiqui would visit, daily, the Lahore military court where the trials were being held for those accused of May 9 violence. She was representing three of those on trial.

But, she says, the process in the court left her with more questions than answers. In each case, she was given access to details of the accusations against her clients only 30 minutes before the hearing, giving her little time to prepare.

All of her clients were convicted under the colonial-era OSA. “The trial under military court basically targeted people for merely approaching the premises of what they called a prohibited area,” she says. And in none of cases was she given copies of the final conviction judgments, she says. That means lawyers like her do not know the duration of the prison sentences handed out to their clients.

Siddiqui says Pakistan’s criminal procedure allows for the punishment of crimes, such as vandalism and rioting. “So why this segregation of trying them under a military court, and not a civilian one?”

Al Jazeera sent a detailed questionnaire to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistani military’s media wing, on Monday, May 6, seeking responses to the questions and allegations raised by family members of people still under arrest, and by lawyers like Siddiqui who are representing them. The questionnaire was also shared with Pakistan’s Ministry of Information. Al Jazeera also followed up on its request on Tuesday. Neither the ISPR nor the Ministry of Information has responded yet.

However, an army official pointed Al Jazeera to a news conference on May 7 by Major General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry, the chief of the ISPR, where he spoke — among other things — on the military’s response to May 9.

Chaudhry said that those involved in the acts of violence on May 9 needed to be punished — and their convictions were critical for the credibility of Pakistan’s legal system. “We believe that to keep trust in the judicial system of the country, both perpetrators and those physically involved in all such acts would have to be taken to task,” he said.

“In which country it happens that house of founder of the nation [Jinnah] is attacked and sensitive installations of armed forces are attacked?” Chaudhry asked “If one believes in Pakistan’s justice system and its framework of accountability, then according to the Constitution, those responsible for the events of May 9, including both perpetrators and masterminds, must face legal repercussions.”

‘There is nothing we can do’

But those “repercussions” also affect the families of those behind bars. Ali in Lahore says his mother became “mentally unstable” and has only seen Faran, in jail, twice in the last year.

“It is so difficult for them [his parents] to see him like that,” he says.

Ali visits his brother in Lahore’s cantonment once every week, where he is allowed to spend 30 to 60 minutes with him.

“I try to bring whatever I think he likes, but there are so many restrictions. We are told by the military to only bring boneless curries. We are not allowed to bring anything liquid either,” he says.

In Faisalabad, Amber says she has not met her husband since March. They spoke on the phone in April.

“My son misses his father so much,” she says. When the family visited Zameer in March, the father played with his children for a few minutes. But as they were leaving, “my son could not stop crying”.

“I never thought something like this would happen to us. To spend your life without your husband, and your children keep asking you questions you don’t have answers [to].”

*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals.

Source: Al Jazeera