Washington D.C : Dismissing Prime Minister Imran Khan as a “military puppet,’ prominent Pakistani dissidents, including former and current members of parliament, have blamed the military for the country’s fragility, insecurity, and inability to get along with neighbouring countries.

“Pakistan is under unannounced martial law,” Pashtun leader and former Senator Afrasiab Khattak told the fifth annual conference of South Asians Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH).

SAATH is a grouping of prodemocracy Pakistanis co-founded by former Pakistan ambassador the U.S., Husain Haqqani, and US-based columnist, Dr. Mohammad Taqi. Previous annual conferences of SAATH have been held in London and Washington but this year participants met virtually.

Members of the group include politicians, journalists, bloggers, social media activists, and members of civil society, many of whom have been forced to live in exile in various countries. Pakistan’s security services have tried to disrupt SAATH meetings in the past and banned members living in Pakistan from traveling abroad but this year, the virtual format enabled several prominent dissidents still in the country to participate.

“This is the most dangerous martial law in Pakistan because it has vulgarised and distorted constitutional institutions,” Khattak said, speaking from Pakistan. “The current military regime is delegitimizing political institutions, going to the extent that intelligence agencies direct members of parliament when to attend sessions and when not to turn up to vote,” he said.

Haqqani noted that Imran Khan had recently publicly blamed him and SAATH for weakening Pakistan’s international standing. “Pakistan’s international standing is being lost due to its policies of encouraging extremism and suppressing freedom, not due to the activism of those fighting for human rights.”

Several speakers, including Rubina Greenwood of the World Sindhi Congress, Tahira Jabeen from Gilgit-Baltistan, Shahzad Irfan of the Seraiki Movement, and Rasool Mohammed of Pashtun Council of America emphasized that various nationalities in Pakistan were being oppressed and denied their rights.

Irfan said that military intervention in politics reinforced Punjab’s dominance and was a key factor in oppression of national and religious minorities.

Greenwood said that the only way for Pakistan to win over the Sindhi and Baloch people would be recognize that Pakistan is a multi-national state. She said that “Sindh is a historical entity that cannot be divided, or its identity denied.”

Jabeen called for ending “73 years of political, constitutional, social, economic, geographical and cultural isolation of Gilgit Baltistan” and an “autonomous set up.”

Shia rights activist, Jaffer Mirza, lamented anti-Shia violence and blamed the authorities for legitimizing anti-Shia politics through legislation, especially the Tahaffuz-e-Islam (Protection of Islam) Bill.

Former ambassador, Kamran Shafi, who is also a retired military officer, said, “The higher ranks of the Pakistan Army must realise that a truly elected government must be in place to bring Pakistan from the brink where the current regime has brought it.”

“All that the COAS, General Bajwa, and ISI have to do is to step back from politicking, and let politics be,” Shafi said, adding that it was “the only way out of the morass our poor country finds itself in.” He added that even in the colonial era, the British Indian army was subject to civilian supremacy.

According to Dr. Taqi army rule had taken Pakistan from one disaster to another. “The narrative of patriotism has been framed around the army and competing worldviews about Pakistan and those who do not fit the army’s parameters are ostracized as rebellious, treasonous, and even blasphemous.

Prominent speakers and participants in the conference included Pashtun women’s activist Gulalai Ismail, exiled journalist Taha Siddiqi and Tahir Gora, and human rights defended Marvi Sirmed.