Pakistan is once again witnessing a wave of violence following the arrest of popular opposition leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan on corruption charges. It is being said the level of unrest has not been seen since 2007, when another former premier - Benazir Bhutto - was assassinated during an election campaign. It was yet another instance of the country's leadership coming back to bite those who serve it as prime minister.
Footage of Khan being dragged from court sparked outrage among his supporters, of his party PTI. Angry protesters torched buildings and vehicles. Authorities have deployed troops in an attempt to contain the clashes. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif vowed a tough response to the attacks. Khan is in custody at a police compound in the capital, Islamabad, undergoing questioning. In a late development, the country's top court termed the arrest 'unlawful', and ruled that the PTI chief would be kept at the Police Lines Guest House but would not be considered a prisoner, and directed the Islamabad police chief to ensure his security.
Since Khan's arrest on Tuesday (May 9), at least eight people have died and dozens have been wounded in clashes between his supporters and police. Protesters have burned buildings and vehicles to the ground. Others blocked roads and set fire to police checkpoints and military facilities. Schools and colleges remain closed in Khan's regional strongholds. More than 2,000 people have been arrested so far.
Pakistan has a history of military takeovers, something we inherited in Bangladesh, amid political upheaval and social unrest. Khan is the seventh prime minister to be arrested since 1977. Military property, including the home of a top commander, has been destroyed. The current turmoil comes as the already embattled country struggles with a dire economic situation, a spike in militancy, and the impact of last year's catastrophic floods. This grimness is unlikely to be addressed or resolved soon, further straining living conditions and security for the 220-million population, as well as the region.
Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April 2022 but clearly still has a massive grassroots following, with the power to quickly mobilise thousands of supporters to the streets and stir up a frenzy with his anti-establishment rhetoric. Last November, he was shot in the leg at a rally. He claims both incidents are evidence of a conspiracy against him, a compelling narrative for his followers who believe he was unjustly ousted and is being targeted by the government and the military.
Khan has at least 100 criminal cases filed against him by various government agencies. But equally no politician in Pakistan has ever quite electrified the populace in the way he has, in the belief that a Naya Pakistan is possible. In some ways his detention was just a matter of time. He was in court on Tuesday for one set of corruption charges but was arrested for another. What's striking about his detention is how dramatic it was - the anti-graft agency whose agents detained him has not explained why he was dragged out of court and shoved into an armoured vehicle.
The 70-year-old Khan has repeatedly denied all allegations against him. The government has stepped up security, banned gatherings - and in some places shut down social media. But Khan's supporters are determined to see him freed. A crackdown on party activists and leaders will not make them back down, on the evidence so far. Though he is likely to be released, the standoff between his supporters and authorities continues - all the while deepening Pakistan's divisions.
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