ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Tuesday turned down an offer of talks by former premier Imran Khan, saying “anarchists and arsonists” who attacked symbols of the state did not qualify for dialogue.
In a rare overture last week, Khan said he was forming a committee for talks with the government to end the country’s lingering political turmoil, worsened this month by violent protests following the opposition politician’s arrest in a land fraud case.
Authorities began a crackdown on close associates and supporters of Khan after his followers attacked security forces and torched government and military properties, including the home of the Corps Commander in Lahore, following Khan’s detention on corruption charges on May 9.
Troops were deployed to contain the violence, which subsided only after Khan was released on bail on May 12. Thousands of supporters of the popular opposition politician have since been arrested, including the most senior leaders of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The government and army have said those found to be behind the violence would be tried under relevant Pakistani laws, including the Army Act. Many top Khan aides have also since announced leaving the party.
Against this background, the embattled Khan dialed down his anti-government rhetoric and called for talks.
“Dialogue is deeply embedded in the political process, which helps democracy mature & evolve. Many political & constitutional breakthroughs occurred when political leaders sat across the table to craft a consensus,” Sharif said on Twitter.
“However, there is a major difference here, the anarchists & arsonists who wear the garb of politicians and attack the symbols of the State do not qualify for a dialogue. They should rather be held to account for their militant actions.”
Sharif’s rejection of the talks’ offer dashed hopes of the lowering of political tensions amid stalled talks between the International Monetary Fund and cash-strapped Pakistan, which is currently trying to avoid a default.
Khan was ousted from the office of the PM by an alliance of opposition parties headed by Sharif in a no-confidence vote last year, and has since been calling for new elections. He alleged, without providing evidence, that Sharif, the US and the Pakistani military conspired to remove him from office — allegations they deny. Khan later backtracked saying only the military and Sharif were behind his ouster.
Under the constitution, the next vote is due in October when the parliament completes its term.