Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif has broken a two-year silence to condemn what he called a parallel military government which flouts democracy to choose the country's leaders.
In his first speech since he was jailed on corruption charges, the three-time premier railed against a “state above a state” which he alleged had brought Imran Khan to power in a rigged 2018 election.
Sharif, speaking from London, put his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party on a collision course with the powerful security establishment after saying it was the real enemy of the opposition, not Mr Khan.
His comments represented an unusually outspoken attack on the largely untouchable generals who have run the country directly or indirectly for much of its history.
“Our fight is not with Imran Khan, but those who imposed him on us,” Sharif told a meeting of 13 opposition parties in Islamabad. “We are against those who brought him.”
Sharif was removed from office over corruption allegations in 2017 and his party defeated the following year in a bitter election which saw Mr Khan sweep to power on an anti-graft platform.
Sharif was sentenced to a seven-year prison term but has been in effective exile since November last year after being granted permission to fly to London for medical treatment.
The PML-N claim Sharif was dethroned and locked up as part of a military witch hunt against him for trying to rein in its power. The army denies meddling in politics.
He told the gathering of parties that former military dictators had escaped punishment for breaking the constitution, while former civilian leaders were being hunted through the courts.
“This country has continuously been deprived of a democratic system for years. Dictators are never punished even by courts.”
He went on: “Now it is not a state within a state, but the situation has gone to a level where a state has become above the state. A parallel government is run against elected regimes. And this is the root cause of our problems.”
Pakistan's opposition has been in disarray since Mr Khan took power. Senior leaders have been harried by corruption investigations and have been unable to join forces. Sunday's gathering marked an attempt to show a united front and outline a strategy to defeat Mr Khan.
Government officials had warned broadcasters not to show Sharif's speech on Sunday, saying it was illegal to give a platform to a convicted criminal and absconder. Sharif was given permission to visit London for only four weeks of treatment but refuses to return.
Senior politicians from Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party dismissed the opposition bloc as “losers”.
Senator Shibli Faraz, the information minister, called the gathering a “flimsy attempt” by the opposition to try to exert pressure so the government would back off on corruption investigations.
“The nation has witnessed that the opposition has used politics for personal gains and used parliament to protect their personal empire," he said. "Prime Minister Imran Khan will never compromise his commitment on corruption.”