Former Pakistani Prime Minister Khan “My Opponents Will Try To Assassinate Me Again”
Ex-cricket star and former playboy Imran Khan has had it all: women, money and fame. Inspired by a Sufi guru who has since passed away, Khan now wants to rescue Pakistan from poverty, corruption and elites who have carved up the country among themselves.
In 2018, Khan became prime minister with the approval of the military leadership, which secretly pulls the strings in the country. He won with his promise of a "new Pakistan,” holding out the prospect of fighting rampant corruption and creating a welfare state. But Khan’s tenure in office was marked by political repression, frosty foreign relations and a lack of investment. Khan fell out with the army chief, and the powerful military dropped him. A vote of no confidence finally forced Khan to step down in April 2022. The country has been ruled since then by opposition leader Sherbaz Sharif.
But 70-year-old Khan wouldn’t still be Pakistan’s most-famous cricket captain if he simply conceded defeat. Indeed, it seems he has brought his motto for sports along with him to the world politics: "You haven’t lost until you’ve given up." For months now, he has repeatedly brought tens of thousands of his supporters, who want to see him back in power, out onto the streets.
In a video interview with DER SPIEGEL from his home in Lahore, Khan addresses criticism that he is destabilizing the country with his actions.
DER SPIEGEL: The last time we met, you were sitting in a cast in your home in Lahore with four bullet wounds in your leg following a suspected assassination attempt. You’ve obviously had a good recovery!
Khan: I am fasting. It's the best thing for your health. Total fasting, no water, nothing until sunset and from sunrise. You feel much better afterwards. Science has proven that Ramadan fasting actually cleanses the body. However, the bullet broke my shin and damaged a nerve. I can walk again, but not jog, although it could have been worse.
Imran Khan is an Oxford-educated former professional cricket player. In 1992, as captain of the national team, he won the World Cup against former colonial power Britain. Khan founded his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party 27 years ago, which, according to the party's platforms, strives for justice and the rule of law. He served as Pakistan's prime minister from 2018 to 2022.
Khan has two sons together with Jamima Goldsmith, the daughter of a British billionaire. Today, he is married to his third wife, Sufi Bushra Bibi Maneka, who also advises him on spiritual matters. Khan lives in Islamabad and Lahore, where he grew up in a middle-class family.
DER SPIEGEL: Your party just won a victory against the central government in court. What is it about?
Khan: According to the constitution, elections must be held within 90 days if the Provincial Assembly or the National Assembly is dissolved. My party ruled in two of the four provinces, which is almost 64 percent of the electorate of the whole country. So, I dissolved both my governments …
DER SPIEGEL: … in order to force new elections and, if possible, bring about a change of power in Islamabad, as well, so that you would become prime minister again.
Khan: Now the Supreme Court has ruled that elections must be held within this period. But the government is refusing to accept the Supreme Court's ruling now.
DER SPIEGEL: Why?
Khan: They are afraid because they know they will lose the elections. They don't want to see me in power because they fear that I will then bring them to justice. That is the struggle that is going on here in Pakistan right now.
DER SPIEGEL: New elections are planned for the autumn, anyway. But every other day, you are drawing millions of people onto the streets, keeping the country in turmoil. Why are you doing that?
Khan: We had no choice. How are we supposed to explain to the people that we can't do anything for them until the autumn because the central government is denying us the funding we are entitled to? But the more important reason is that Pakistan is sinking into the worst economic crisis in our history.
The biggest economic crisis in 50 years: Hungry Pakistanis wait for bread handouts in Pehsawar on April 3.Foto: Abdul Majeed / AFP
DER SPIEGEL: Even under your government, the country was facing a national bankruptcy.
Khan: Today, we have the highest inflation in 50 years. We are on the verge of insolvency. That means massive unemployment, the closure of our industries and the decline of our agriculture – because we’re an agricultural country, and agricultural production is shrinking.
DER SPIEGEL: This all sounds familiar.
Khan: We recently had a growth rate of 6 percent. You can read all this in the current government's Economic Survey of Pakistan. It was the best economic performance of any government in 17 years. But in this last year alone, economic growth has fallen to 0.4 percent.
DER SPIEGEL: Still, many claim that the pressure against journalists, at least, is now relaxed compared to the situation during your term.
Khan: I remember very well when our government was deposed …
DER SPIEGEL: … a year ago, there was a vote of no confidence against you, which you lost.
Khan: At that time, 20 of our people in parliament had been bought to bring me down, as we found out afterward. So, we protested in a big march and made it clear that this was undemocratic. In the process, our people were beaten up, arrested and tear gassed.
PTI party supporters are detained by security forces outside Imran Khan's home in Lahore on March 18.Foto: K.M. Chaudary / AP
DER SPIEGEL: There were also mass protest marches against your government.
Khan: There were exactly three protest marches, and not once did we use police violence against the demonstrators. The reason for the violence against our protest march was that the military establishment was behind this new government of Sherbaz Sharif, led by then army chief General Javed Bajwa. And this is how it works here: The army chief decides, the rest follow.
DER SPIEGEL: Aren't you systematically trying to destabilize the current government and thus the whole country?
Khan: Our task as the opposition is to hold rallies, explain our point of view to the people, make it clear to them how we would do things and criticize the government. That does not create chaos. What causes chaos is when the government acts against our peaceful protests. Violence is not in the interest of my party. We want elections.
DER SPIEGEL: There are now 143 charges against you, including terror and incitement to riot. What is the intention behind them?
Imran Khan after a high court ruling in Lahore on March 17: 143 charges is "almost a world record."Foto: Aamir Qureshi / AFP
Khan: Yes, this is almost a world record, even for a hardened criminal. And on March 14, indeed, countless policemen stood in front of our driveway and attacked my private home. They brought an unlawful search warrant with them.
DER SPIEGEL: But you were nowhere to be found when the police then stormed your house.
Khan: I could not appear in court for security reasons.
DER SPIEGEL: Among the many accusations in the charges is one that could possibly jeopardize your qualification as a candidate. It concerns an expensive gift watch from Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It has been alleged that you bought it from the state when you were prime minister and then turned around and resold it at a higher price. What’s that all about?
Khan: A public servant here must pay 50 percent of the value of a gift if he wants to keep it. That's what I did. I used the proceeds to tar the road in front of my house, which was in very poor condition. One should be more concerned about the two previous heads of state, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, who actually stole such gifts.
DER SPIEGEL: Can you be more specific?
Khan: They were given expensive cars as gifts and used them without paying. That is unlawful. But all this is documented in the Tosha Khana, the repository for state gifts. It will all come to light.
DER SPIEGEL: Why don't you let the crisis-ridden country rest and simply replace the current government in the autumn?
Khan: One of my driving forces is the intolerable corruption. Current Prime Minister Sharif and his son stood trial for money laundering and corruption, allegedly embezzling billions of rupees and laundering them abroad. It was only through a deal with the former army chief, who wanted an extension of his term, that Sharif became head of government, anyway.
DER SPIEGEL: In any case, Prime Minister Sharif was acquitted of those charges in October 2022. What is actually left of rule of law in Pakistan?
Khan: There is no rule of law in the developing world. Our judicial system and our legal institutions are not strong enough to hold the powerful accountable. The money is siphoned off, it ends up in offshore accounts. If the institutions were strong, they would not be able to do that. So, those in power make sure that the institutions remain weak. The powerful are above the law.
DER SPIEGEL: They shot at you, tried to arrest and disqualify you. What happens if you step down from the political stage?
Khan: My opponents will try to assassinate me again, above all the intelligence chief, Faisal Naseer, but also the prime minister and his interior minister. I am taking precautionary measures, but they are very powerful people.
Government leader Shebaz Sharif (at the 2022 climate summit in Sharm al-Sheikh)Foto: FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP
DER SPIEGEL: Where is this nation of 240 million people heading?
Khan: Pakistan is now at a real crossroads. If the government follows the Supreme Court ruling, it will have to hold elections. That can lead to political and economic stability …
DER SPIEGEL: you mean, if you then take over the government again, right?
Khan: … but if it overrides the Supreme Court ruling, we are heading for chaos and possible disasters. Then the law of the jungle will prevail.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Khan, we thank you for this interview.