Ranger danger: Why did NAB use a paramilitary force to arrest Imran Khan?

Repeated incidents of this nature reveal a sustained mutual dependency between the NAB and the Pakistan Army.
Published May 10, 2023

On Tuesday, the Rangers — a paramilitary force — assisted in the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan from the premises of the Islamabad High Court, in what can only be viewed as a dramatic show of “enough is enough”.

The action came less than a day after an ISPR press release warned Imran to stop making “irresponsible” and “baseless” allegations against military officers, and after more than a year of repeated attempts to curb his populist appeal since the 2022 vote of no-confidence.

These attempts have ranged from the registration of corruption and terrorism cases against the PTI chief, as well as other members of his party, to a full-fledged police crackdown on his Zaman Park residence. Imran's arrest has been finally facilitated by a warrant issued by the National Accountability Bureau against him in the Al Qadir Trust case.

A violent sequence of events — from the Rangers breaking into court premises to arrest Imran, outnumbering the police, then driving him away in a black Vigo, and then military buildings left mysteriously vacant for angry protesters to vent their grievances — gives the impression that the top brass’s decision to arrest Imran may have been made days, if not weeks, prior.

This decision required a carefully planned operation. The Punjab Police were involved, but sources suggest the police feared paying the cost of such an arrest from court premises. Their reservations were valid considering how swiftly IG Punjab was summoned by the IHC to explain the events. With the police hesitant, the operation was entrusted to the Pakistan Rangers.

These events warrant a brief but critical discussion of (a) what gives the Rangers their policing powers, and (b) what sort of institutional relationship exists between the two bodies, the Rangers and NAB?

The legal cover

The paramilitary force (consisting of Sindh and Punjab Rangers) derives its policing powers (of arrest, search, and use of force etc) from several legal frameworks.

The Pakistan Rangers Ordinance (1959) not only allows the state to deploy the paramilitary force for “the protection and maintenance of order in border areas”, but also authorises their deputation for law and order purposes, wherever deemed necessary. The ordinance allows the Rangers to provide “assistance to the police” and “reinforce the police for the maintenance of law and order whenever it is necessary”.

Additionally, Article 147 of the Constitution allows provincial governments to requisition the paramilitary force into a province for policing functions, with the consent of the federal government. In 1989, the then government of PPP in Sindh utilised this constitutional provision to requisition the Rangers into urban Sindh, in the face of the MQM’s increasing street power. They have not left since.

Finally, the Anti-Terrorism Act (1997) — which came into being under a PML-N government — has expanded the Rangers' policing powers. It is under the ATA that the Rangers have been deployed in Karachi for “anti-terrorism operations”.

In 2014, also under a PML-N regime and during the time of the (most recent) Karachi Operation, the ATA was amended, allowing the Rangers to detain suspects for up to 90 days without charge and use force where there were reasonable grounds for suspicion. Essentially, the ATA allows the Rangers to detain or arrest people without charge and warrant. It is also the ATA that allows armed forces and civil armed forces (the Rangers) to be called “in aid of civil powers”.

Read more: Rangers’ powers

It is primarily under these legal covers that the Punjab Rangers have been requisitioned and deputed in Lahore and other cities of Punjab for “maintaining law and order”. In doing so, they can assist any military or civilian law enforcement agency.

And although their deployment “in aid of civil power” is officially requested by provincial governments and sanctioned by the federal government, through the Ministry of Interior, the paramilitary forces officially report to the Pakistan Army. Notably, the senior cadre of the Pakistan Rangers are deputed from the Pakistan Army and are typically serving army officers. Post-deputation, many are promoted to key positions in the Pakistan Army.

Former DG ISI Rizwan Akhtar previously served as DG Rangers of Sindh and led the Karachi Operation at its peak. Another former DG Rangers Sindh, Bilal Akbar, was later appointed Chief of General Staff.

But in what capacity can the National Accountability Bureau direct the Rangers to make an arrest based on their warrant?

The coercive cooperation

When it comes to NAB, the NAB Ordinance (1999) allows the accountability watchdog to request the assistance of the police “or any other agency”. This is clear in Section 18-E of the NAB ordinance, which reads:

“The Chairman NAB and such members, officers, or servants … shall have and exercise … all the powers of an officer-in-charge of a Police Station … and for that purpose may cause the attendance of any person, and when and if the assistance of any agency, police officer or any other official or agency, as the case may be, is sought by the NAB such official or agency shall render such assistance provided that no person shall be arrested without the permission of the Chairman [NAB] or any officer [of NAB] duly authorised…”

It appears that it is under this regulation that the NAB has ordered the Punjab Rangers to deliver on its warrant, arrest Imran, and bring him to the NAB office in Rawalpindi. But this coercive institutional cooperation between the anti-corruption body and the paramilitary force is not unprecedented. How has this relationship manifested in the past?

The execution

In 2019, former prime minister and PML-N leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was arrested by NAB in the LNG import contract case, under Imran's government. The PML-N, crying political victimisation, said Imran Khan was manifesting “vengeance” against it. At the time of Abbasi’s arrest, Ahsan Iqbal questioned the role of the Rangers, to which a NAB official reportedly said that the Rangers had “no special assignment” and were only there to offer additional security.

Given that the NAB ordinance allows any agency to offer it assistance, as needed, the paramilitary’s role in Abbasi’s arrest was perhaps unsurprising.

Also under Imran’s government, and in a more public and dramatic display of coercive cooperation, the Rangers came to NAB’s assistance for the arrest of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz on their return to Lahore in July 2018. According to reports, as many as 2,000 Rangers personnel were deployed in and around the Lahore airport when the arrest took place. Both the Rangers and NAB officials were reportedly involved in the arrests of Nawaz and Maryam, and their teams escorted the PML-N leaders off the plane.

Earlier in 2015, the Rangers arrested Dr Asim Hussain — a close confidante of former president Asif Ali Zardari — under the ATA on terrorism-financing charges. The case was registered on a complaint by the Sindh Rangers, who alleged that “terrorists” were being treated at Hussain’s hospital in Karachi.

The arrest gave the Rangers a 90-day custody of Hussain. Interestingly, NAB initially disassociated itself from the Rangers’ arrest. However, given NAB’s ongoing investigation into allegations of corruption against Hussain, his arrest by the Rangers enabled the accountability watchdog to take his custody and investigate him accordingly.

When Hussain allegedly refused to expose the corruption of the “big fish”, both terrorism and corruption cases were filed, demonstrating how anti-corruption and anti-terrorism campaigns are frequently intertwined in Pakistan. In short, NAB could not have executed Hussain’s arrest without the facilitation of the Rangers.

What these brief accounts reveal is a sustained mutual dependency between two coercive arms of the state, the NAB and the Pakistan Army (operating, often but not always, through the Rangers).

It is a coercive cooperation that we saw weaponised during the PML-N government — when the armed forces sought to put MQM and PPP in line — during the PTI government — when the hybrid regime sought to victimise PML-N and PPP leadership— as well as today when the PDM and the military seem desperate to wage an extensive lawfare to reign in Imran Khan.