Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the release of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose arrest on corruption charges earlier this week sparked a wave of violence across the country from his supporters.
After the ruling, violence across the country appeared to subside, although clashes briefly erupted between cheering Khan’s supporters and police near the Supreme Court building. The government, however, denounced the sentence and said it was determined to find other legal ways to arrest the former prime minister.
For a nation accustomed to military takeovers, political crises and violence, last week’s turmoil was unprecedented. Since Khan’s dramatic arrest on Tuesday, protesters have clashed with police in areas of the country and mobs have attacked military and government sites, trying to storm main army headquarters and setting fire to a senior general’s residence in Lahore. The government has responded with a crackdown on Khan’s supporters, arresting more than 2,000 so far.
FORMER PAKISTAN PRIME MINISTER IMRAN KHAN GATHERS THOUSANDS OF SUPPORTERS DESPITE ARREST WARRANTS
The Supreme Court declared Khan’s arrest illegal two days ago and, while releasing him from custody, ordered him to be kept under the protection of the security forces in a safe place in the capital Islamabad. The head of his legal team, Babar Awan, stressed that Khan is a “free citizen” and will be able to meet lawyers and supporters. Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial urged Khan to appeal to his supporters to remain peaceful.
Khan will appear before the Islamabad High Court on Friday to reconsider his earlier ruling that the arrest was lawful. Khan could also ask the court for protection from future arrests on corruption charges.
Speaking on Pakistani TV Dunya, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan promised: “We will arrest him again”, possibly on charges announced the day before of inciting a wave of violence. The minister is not related to the former prime minister.
The ruling infuriated the government, with multiple officials accusing the chief justice of bias towards Khan. Chief Justice Bandial “should now hoist the flag of Imran Khan’s party on the Supreme Court, or should declare the court to be a sub-office of Imran’s party,” Azam Tarar, adviser to Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, told reporters .
Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif called it a “special truce” for the former prime minister, saying the court ignored attacks by his supporters on military and government installations.
The violence has intensified a long and heated confrontation between the former prime minister and Sharif’s government. Khan was removed from office a year ago in a vote of no confidence in Parliament but still has fervent support in many areas. He also faces at least 100 criminal charges brought against him by various government agencies, mostly for corruption. Khan described the removal of him and the charges against him as part of a campaign against him by Sharif, the United States and the Pakistani military, a claim all three deny.
The spark was the dramatic arrest of the former leader on Tuesday. Khan was in court on a number of charges when anti-graft officers broke in, dragged him away and pushed him into an armored vehicle in connection with other charges.
FORMER PAKISTAN PRIME MINISTER IMRAN KHAN ARRESTED FOR CORRUPTION BY POLICE
In the ensuing violence, at least 10 of his supporters were killed and dozens of protesters and more than 200 policemen were injured. Protesters set fire to trucks, cars and police vehicles in the streets and blocked highways. He echoed the unrest following the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto at a campaign rally. His supporters at the time, outraged by his killing, raged for days across Pakistan.
Police on Thursday filed new terrorism charges against Khan and the top leaders of his Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf party on charges of inciting mob violence.
In an address to the nation on Wednesday, Sharif said Khan was arrested because of his involvement in corruption and that there was evidence to support these allegations.
He said the unrest forced him to deploy the military in Islamabad, Punjab – Pakistan’s most populous province – and unstable northwest regions.
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Following the violence, the government has closed schools, colleges and universities in Punjab and the northwestern provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Khan has a massive support base and where most of the violence has been reported. At least seven of the protesters who have died so far have been reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and two in the Punjab’s capital Lahore, along with one in the southwestern city of Quetta. The government has also suspended internet service in various parts of the country.
“We will arrest all those who have violated law and order,” said Mohson Naqvi, Chief Minister of Punjab.
The protesters’ attacks on the military were startling. The military has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of the 75 years since the country gained independence from British colonial rule and wields considerable power over civilian governments.
Khan’s supporters attacked the military headquarters in Rawalpindi and security posts in the northwest. In Lahore on Tuesday night, protesters looted and burned down the residence of the regional commander, Lieutenant General Salman Fayyaz Ghani.
The military promised on Wednesday to respond to the protesters’ attacks with full force. He said the attacks on his installations were orchestrated and that the violence was a “black chapter” in the country’s history.