There was hardly a murmur of outrage when Imran Khan, a former prime minister, was detained over the weekend on suspicion of corruption.
In the entire nation, not a single significant protest was reported.
Contrast this with the 70-year-old’s arrest and removal from an Islamabad courthouse on May 9 from a few months ago. It spurred demonstrations across the nation, which in some locations resulted in violence as Mr. Khan’s followers engaged in combat with law enforcement. Some protestors broke into military facilities and even ransacked the residence of Lahore’s highest-ranking military officer.
But this time around, when Mr Khan was sentenced and then taken to a prison in Attock city, authorities were ready. His destination was kept secret and reports say there were a number of decoy convoys to deceive the media. Police and the military were on high alert across all major cities, and dozens of people were pre-emptively taken into custody.
Pakistan’s governing party and the army have pointed to the lack of protest over Mr Khan’s arrest as a sign that the former PM no longer enjoys the support of the people. But his Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party and supporters say they have been forced into silence by a swift crackdown. The BBC also understands that media outlets were told not to cover PTI’s activities or even mention Mr Khan’s name on air following the mass protests in May.
Thousands of Mr Khan’s supporters have been arrested since May. The army has said they intend to try them in military courts, which human rights groups have said is against international law. The PTI has also been systematically gutted, with numerous party workers and leaders being arrested, or facing court cases. Mr Khan himself still faces some 200 cases. Several PTI members have since defected or quit politics altogether.
Ali Akbar, a senior political analyst, said this is why Mr Khan’s calls for a protest went unheeded this time – not only did workers and supporters fear arrest, but they were also unable to mobilise support because of the lack of leadership left in PTI.
Fatima, a PTI supporter whose name has been changed on request, said police action against party leaders had frightened her into silence – even online.
“I used to still support the party on Twitter, but one day I received a phone call from an anonymous number warning me against posting such tweets. I got scared and my parents also advised me to delete my Twitter account as they said no-one would be able to help me if I were arrested,” she said.
Another party worker said he did not want to put himself in a difficult situation given the police appeared ready to arrest anyone who came forward to protest.
“After so many of their leaders and workers were arrested, my family members are not even allowing me to meet other lady workers of the party,” says Naheed, a homemaker in the conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northwest Pakistan, whose name has been changed on request.
She says she began supporting Imran Khan and the PTI after they were ousted from power in April last year. But now, she adds, she is unable to even leave her house, because of the extent of the police action against party workers.
Other supporters who spoke to the BBC also said they did not want to protest this time. One man who did not want to be identified said he believed in peaceful demonstration, but was disheartened after the May protests turned violent: “I don’t know who was behind it but I cannot support such violence and destruction.”
But many also said they still support Mr Khan and the PTI, even if they were not doing so publicly. The strength of this “silent support” is still visible. The PTI recently won a by-election in an area where it lost last year – and by a notable margin.
Anti-establishment stances quickly become popular in Pakistan, says Irfan Khan, a political analyst.
“Earlier when the PTI was in power and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) took an anti-establishment stance, the PML won by-elections at many seats even in PTI strongholds,” he said.
Mr Khan himself was seen as an ally of the establishment when he rose to power in 2018, and is widely believed to have been ousted after the relationship soured.
Many PTI supporters, including Fatima, vow that they will still vote for Mr Khan and his party in the next general election, which is expected to be held later this year.
Naheed also says her vote will go to the PTI: “These actions will not make us leave the PTI. Our love for Imran Khan and the party is only getting stronger, and we will continue to support them.”