Pakistan’s military on Monday fired three senior army commanders and disciplined 15 top officers over their conduct during recent protests that supported former Prime Minister Imran Khan, in what analysts called the strongest action the military has taken against its own members in decades.
The punishments, announced by a military spokesman, sent a clear message that support for Mr. Khan within the ranks would not be tolerated by the military’s powerful leaders. They also underscored that the military would use an increasingly strong hand to quash support for Mr. Khan, the cricket-star-turned-politician who was ousted from power last year but has made a comeback in the months since.
Maj. Gen. Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry, the military spokesman, announced the disciplinary steps at a news conference in Rawalpindi, saying that the three army commanders and 15 other senior officers had failed to secure military installations from attacks by protesters. The demonstrations broke out last month after Mr. Khan was briefly arrested on corruption charges, accusations that he denied.
Tensions have repeatedly flared between Mr. Khan and the Pakistani military since his ouster from power last year in a vote of no-confidence in Parliament. Mr. Khan has accused the military of orchestrating his removal, an allegation that officials deny.
The authorities have been investigating Mr. Khan for months, and moved to arrest him last month. After the arrest, violent demonstrations erupted across the country as his supporters channeled their anger against the military, which many viewed as the invisible hand pulling the strings of the case.
Mr. Khan’s supporters not only demonstrated on the streets, but also broke through the gates of military installations and ransacked the official residence of the top military commander in Lahore, the country’s second-largest city and Mr. Khan’s home. Protesters also broke through the gates of the military’s headquarters in Rawalpindi and rallied outside an air base in Punjab Province.
The protests took Pakistan into uncharted political territory: The military has held sway over the country, directly and indirectly through civilian governments, for decades, and a widespread show of defiance against the military was unthinkable not long ago.
The military has called the day of the protests, May 9, a “Black Day” and vowed to punish those involved. Since then, at least 5,000 of Mr. Khan supporters have been arrested, and dozens of his top party leaders have defected after they faced increasing pressure from the military establishment to do so, according to his supporters.
At least 102 of Mr. Khan’s supporters will be tried in military courts, a military spokesman said, a move that has drawn widespread criticism from human rights groups, which say that doing so denies their right to due process.
“The Pakistani government has a responsibility to prosecute those committing violence, but only in independent and impartial civilian courts,” Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Pakistan’s military courts, which use secret procedures that deny due process rights, should not be used to prosecute civilians, even for crimes against the military.”
Analysts have described the move as an intimidation tactic. The decision, made as the Supreme Court is hearing a petition against it, has also been widely seen as a message to Pakistan’s judiciary — which has openly contradicted the military in recent months — that the power of the courts is limited and that the military reigns supreme.
On Monday, General Chaudhry said the punishments for senior commanders were decided after an internal inquiry. The officers who were fired included the military commander of Lahore, Lt. Gen. Salman Fayaz Ghani, whose official residence was ransacked during the protests, according to security officials.
General Ghani, one of the military’s top leaders, had been instructed to secure the residence after protests erupted, security officials said, but appeared instead to allow thousands of protesters inside the military installation after ordering the guards to stand down.
The commander miscalculated that the protesters would remain peaceful, security officials said. The protesters proceeded to burn down his official residence, and he had to flee along with his family.
Military leaders have also accused several retired army officers sympathetic to Mr. Khan of helping orchestrate the protests, which they say were aimed at pressuring the powerful army chief, Gen. Syed Asim Munir, into starting a dialogue with Mr. Khan about early elections.
Although Mr. Khan fell out with military leaders in the lead-up to his ouster, he has maintained widespread support in the ranks. For many, he was viewed as one of the few political leaders not tainted by the corruption that has wracked successive civilian governments, and thousands of women and children from current and retired military families were regular fixtures at the political rallies of Mr. Khan, who was seen as a political outsider.
The military spokesman, General Chaudhry, said that a granddaughter of a retired four-star general, the son-in-law of a retired four-star general, the wife of a retired three-star general and the wife and son-in-law of a retired two-star general were among those facing trials over their role in the May 9 protests.