LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan's embattled former Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused the powerful military and its intelligence agency of openly trying to destroy his political party, saying he had "no doubt" he would be tried in a military court and thrown in jail.
Khan has hinted previously at the military's hand in a crackdown on his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party but his comments in an interview at his Lahore home on Saturday night were the most blunt yet.
"It is completely the establishment," the former cricket hero told Reuters, when asked who was behind the crackdown. "Establishment obviously means the military establishment, because they are really now openly - I mean, it's not even hidden now - they're just out in the open."
A spokesman for the military, which has run the country directly or indirectly for its 75-year history, and has seldom faced the sort of public challenge to its power as it has from Khan, did not respond to a request for comment.
A bruising year-long standoff between Khan, Pakistan's most popular leader according to polls, and the army came to a head when military buildings and property were ransacked last month, allegedly by his supporters.
The political unrest has increased uncertainty in the nuclear-armed country of 220 million, which is also beset by financial turmoil. Its $350 billion economy is struggling to stave off default, control record inflation and deal with a plummeting currency.
Khan termed the violent protests, which erupted after he was briefly arrested, a "false flag operation" meant to target him.
Authorities have begun the process of trying dozens of people, including members of his party, suspected of involvement in the protests in military court - usually reserved for service members or those categorised as enemies of the state.
"That's the only way they are going to get me into prison," Khan said, adding that the military wanted to stop him from returning to power in elections due by November.
He said about 150 criminal cases filed against him were frivolous and would get thrown out in any civilian court.
"So their only hope, and because they are determined to get me out of the way, I think they will, their whole charade of military courts is to imprison me," he said.
"I have absolutely no doubt that the military courts are meant for me," said Khan, who is out on bail.
Amnesty International says Pakistan's military courts have previously shown disregard for due process, lack of transparency, coerced confessions and executions after unfair trials.
Khan said the country's most powerful spy agency, the military's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), was deeply involved in the crackdown.
He said two senior members of his party were called by the agency for talks. "And when they went there, just they shut them up and said 'You (won't) leave unless you renounce being part of PTI.'"
Khan said he has tried to contact the military for talks to find a way out of the current crisis but had got no response, and that he did not know why the army chief, General Asim Munir, was "fixated" on sidelining him.
Before becoming army chief in November 2022, Munir was the head of the ISI - a post from which he was suddenly removed in 2019 while Khan was prime minister.
Khan himself was ousted from office in a parliamentary vote last year that he says was orchestrated by Pakistan's top generals. The military denies this.
No official reason was given for Munir's premature removal, but Khan acknowledged in the interview, for the first time, that he had wanted him gone from the role.
"I think that maybe he has a grudge because I asked him to resign" as ISI chief, Khan said. "I don't know."
When asked why he had asked Munir to resign, Khan said: "You know, I, as prime minister, felt that how the intelligence agency was run... I had my issues with that." He did not elaborate.
Munir was later selected as the country's top general by Khan's successor and political rival, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
"He shouldn't have issues with that now because he is the army chief," Khan said, referring to Munir's removal as ISI head. "So why would he harbour that grudge?"
Khan said he was puzzled by the campaign against him.
"(I am) someone who's been known in this country for 50 years, who's probably won all the awards in this country and probably the most well-known Pakistani, and suddenly being treated as a sort of alien, as an enemy of the state."
(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)