L. Ali Khan, founder of Legal Scholar Academy and Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law, and Hira Ghumman, attorney who has served in the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, discuss possible security precautions for former prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan ahead of his return to his protest march to Islamabad…

This commentary proposes that a high-profile political leader, such as former prime minister Imran Khan, who recently suffered an assassination attempt at a public rally, should be declared a “permanent protectee” of Pakistan’s State Security. The notion of the permanent protectee, borrowed from U.S. security laws, empowers secret security services to seize and whisk away even an unwilling permanent protectee if danger to their life is imminent.

On November 3, 2022, Imran Khan was the target of an assassination attempt in Wazirabad city of Pakistan, while his anti-government protest convoy was heading toward Islamabad, the capital. Imran Khan was ousted from office earlier this year through a no-confidence vote, which he claimed to have transpired through U.S. conspiracy in cohort with the Pakistan military. Since his ouster, Khan has been pressing for early elections and carrying out rallies/" 1014 target="_blank">political rallies called “long march,” a Mao Zedong phrase, a practice that political elites frequently use.

The shooting at the Wazirabad rally killed a Khan supporter and injured several members of Khan’s political party. Khan was traveling in an open truck, called a container, without bulletproof shields. While Khan and his party members, standing at the rooftop of the container and waving at the rally, ducked for cover behind the container’s thin metal sheet, several bullet pellets hit Khan in the leg, chipping his bone.

Since Khan blames the Pakistan military for his ouster from office, he summons more than political enemies. Khan’s supporters believe that the army would kill him. Khan’s popularity and anti-military rhetoric draw charged crowds but render him a target during public events, threatening peace and security. Khan is perhaps the most prominent leader in Pakistan’s history, at least no less than former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was killed in a public rally. Khan draws emotionally charged crowds at his rallies. Unfortunately, Khan also attracts cold-blooded enemies that wish to harm him.

Permanent Protectee

In the United States, under 18 U.S.C. § 3056, the Secret Service is responsible for protecting high-profile U.S. political officeholders and visiting world leaders. The law declares the U.S. President and Vice President as permanent protectees. Permanent protectees have special agents permanently assigned to them. Temporary protectees, such as presidential and vice-presidential candidates and foreign heads of state, are staffed with special agents on temporary assignments from the Secret Service. Temporary protectees may decline the Secret Service protection. Still, the permanent protectees enjoy no such optionality and must comply with the mandatory security measures, even if such measures restrict their freedom of movement.

The U.S. Secret Service protects the permanent protectees at all times to ensure that the officeholders carry out their activities without interference, thus safeguarding the country’s welfare. The mandatory protectees must listen to the Secret Service security guidance. During the riot on January 6, 2021, former U.S. President Donald Trump was taken to the White House instead of Capitol Hill by his Secret Service agents. The Secret Service has always assumed discretion in seizing a president to protect him from immediate harm. The agents acquire the skills to take control of a permanent protectee in moments of peril. They do not ask permission; they grab the permanent protectee and, if necessary, carry them to safety. This mandatory protection is essential for a functioning government.

Pakistan does not have the concept of permanent protectees. However, the notion of Very Very Important Persons (VVIPs) (a term also used in India) comes close. Pakistan’s president and the prime minister are official VVIPs and enjoy state security. Per Pakistan’s interior minister, a famous personality is given state security during public events. Imran Khan’s status as a former prime minister and a high-profile political leader entitles him to state security, and reportedly hundreds of agents protect him in his rallies. Unfortunately, Imran Khan declines the security measures exposing himself and his supporters to harm.

Declining State Security

Imran Khan declines to comply with security measures under the misguided notion of kay sera sera (whatever will be, will be). To make matters more complicated, Khan relies on the Islamic faith to argue that Allah has determined the day of death for each person, and nothing can alter that day. Accordingly, Imran Khan refuses to take proper safety measures during public rallies, saying he is not afraid of death. Khan’s assertion might be religiously palatable and paints him as a ”brave leader” for his diehard supporters, but this daredevil approach exposes him and the crowd to injury and death. Most Islamic scholars understand the difference between Allah’s will and walking straight into a speeding truck. No interpretation of Islamic law blatantly disregards common sense.

Pakistan’s political history is full of violent attacks on political figures. In 1951, the first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, was shot dead in a public gathering in Rawalpindi. Benazir Bhutto, a two-term former prime minister of Pakistan, survived a suicide bombing in Karachi in 2007 during her re-election campaign. However, she was later shot dead at a rally in Rawalpindi. Both murders remain a mystery. However, some assert that, contrary to security guidelines, Bhutto exposed her head through the car hatch (sunroof), making her an easy target for the assassin. The assassination triggered widespread civil unrest in Pakistan as Bhutto’s followers roamed the streets of Sindh, chanting anti-Pakistan slogans.

Mandatory State Security

We propose that Pakistan adopt the legal notion of permanent protection under which the identified persons must comply with security guidelines. This mandatory security must extend to high-profile political leaders, such as Imran Khan, who engage in public rallies, draw huge supporters, and run the risk of assassination. For the following reasons, Pakistan cannot allow Imran Khan to decline state security.

First, a lack of mandatory security during public appearances provides an additional incentive for potential enemies to carry out an armed attack. Speaking to the crowds behind bulletproof glass is much safer than without such protection. A leader must protect the life and limb of his followers even if the leader does not fear his own death for religious reasons. By declining security, the leader jeopardizes not only his life but also that of supporters attending public rallies.

Second, when a public leader with the status of Benazir Bhutto or Imran Khan faces death or injury, it plunges the nation into catastrophic turmoil. The supporters ignore that the leader refused to comply with security guidelines. They may go after the institutions and government officials they believe are involved in the attack. Imran Khan has accused the state intelligence agencies and the military of removing him from office. Imran Khan openly states that another attempt on his life is in the making. The supporters will blame the army if Khan is killed, posing extreme threats to national security. Another attack on Imran Khan will force his supporters to react angrily, which can lead to violent demonstrations or destruction in the country.

Third, an attack on a high-profile public leader can cause upheaval internationally. Rumors fly fast in Pakistan, and the public reacts to even unfounded allegations much more readily and violently in moments of tragedy. The government has indicated that foreign agencies, a hidden reference to the Indian security agency, may kill Imran Khan in a public rally. Imran Khan accuses the United States of launching a conspiracy against his government, an accusation that the United States has repeatedly denied. Khan supporters will undoubtedly point fingers at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for plotting his assassination. Given persistent tensions, Pakistan’s history with India can lead Pakistan’s public to urge the military to take action against India, risking a possible war. Any instability in South Asia is a threat to international peace and security.

As a permanent protectee of the state, Imran Khan may still be attacked and possibly killed. If safety is a science of risk probabilities, the chances of a successful future attack are significantly reduced when security agencies do their job, and the protectee complies with security measures.

L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. He has written numerous scholarly articles and commentaries on law. In addition, he has regularly contributed to JURIST since 2001. He welcomes comments at [email protected]

Hira Ghumman is an attorney at law and has served in the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism. She welcomes comments at [email protected]
Suggested citation:L. Ali Khan and Hira Ghumman, A Proposal to Deter High-Profile Political Assassinations in Pakistan, JURIST – Academic Commentary, November 21, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/11/khan-ghumman-detering-political-assassinations-pakistan/.

This article was prepared for publication by Hayley Behal, JURIST Commentary Co-Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at [email protected]

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST’s editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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