Violent protests erupted across Pakistan on Tuesday after former prime minister Imran Khan was arrested and dragged away during a scheduled court appearance in Islamabad, sparking fresh turmoil in a country already struggling with an economic crisis.
Police clashed with Mr Khan’s supporters in most cities after his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party urged them to “shut down Pakistan” in protest. Hundreds blocked streets in Lahore, where police were been put on high alert.
Mr Khan was giving his biometric data in a room inside the Islamabad High Court when officers dressed in riot gear stormed the building, smashing windows to gain access in dramatic scenes captured on video by Mr Khan’s aides.
A large group of Pakistan Rangers – a paramilitary civil defence unit controlled by the interior ministry – led an apparently injured Mr Khan away to an armoured vehicle.
Mr Khan, 70, a cricket hero-turned-politician, was in court over dozens of charges, mostly relating to alleged corruption, brought against him since he was removed from office by a vote of no confidence last year. He says the charges are all politically motivated.
Political infighting is common in Pakistan, where no prime minister has yet fulfilled a full term and where the military has ruled for nearly half of the country’s history.
Interior minister Rana Sanaullah said Mr Khan had been arrested over corruption, alleging he cost the country’s treasury millions of pounds by illegally purchasing land from a business tycoon while in office.
But Fawad Chaudhry, PTI’s vice president, said Mr Khan had been “abducted”.
Hammad Azhar, a former minister in Mr Khan’s ousted government, said the arrest was “not acceptable” and that for the party it represents “our red line”. He also called on the people of Pakistan to come out on the streets in protest.
In Karachi, police fired tear gas and swung batons at hundreds of demonstrators who blocked a key road.
In Lahore, where Mr Khan lives with his family and where PTI enjoys strong levels of support, police were trying to disperse rallies on key central roads where many had gathered to protest, largely peacefully.
Former PM Imran Khan has been abducted from Court premises, scores of lawyers and general people have been tortured, Imran Khan has been whisked away by unknown people to an unknown location, CJ Islamabad HIgh Court has ordered Secy interior and IG police to appear within 15 min…
— Ch Fawad Hussain (@fawadchaudhry) May 9, 2023
Officials from the federal National Accountability Bureau (NAB) said arrest warrants were issued for Mr Khan last week in a corruption case for which he had not obtained bail; images of a warrant dated 1 May were circulated widely on social media, though their authenticity was not immediately confirmed.
Sources at the NAB told Associated Press that Mr Khan would be brought before a corruption tribunal as early as Wednesday.
Mr Khan appears to have known that his arrest in Islamabad was likely – he assembled a panel of six senior PTI officials to lead the party in the event of his arrest, telling Reuters: “I have made a committee which will obviously take decisions once — if — I’m inside [jail]”.
He released a video earlier in the day in which he insisted that “there is no case on me”.
“They want to put me in jail, I am ready for it,” he said.
"There is no case on me. They want to put me in jail, I am ready for it," said former Pakistan PM and PTI chief Imran Khan before his arrest
(Video source: Imran Khan's Twitter Handle) pic.twitter.com/pH3QblSC0b
— ANI (@ANI) May 9, 2023
And PTI issued another video after the arrest, in which Mr Khan addresses the nation saying: “It is possible I won’t get a chance to talk to you again”.
“My fellow Pakistanis, when these words of mine reach you I will already be closed inside in an unlawful case. After this, you all should realise that fundamental rights, law and democracy have been buried.”
He continues: “Pakistan’s public has known me for 50 years; I’ve been in the eyes of the public for 50 years, I have never gone against Pakistan’s constitution and I’ve never broken the law. Since I’ve been in politics, I have always tried that [all] my struggle would be peaceful and within the ambits of the constitution.”
He said his arrest “is not because I have broken any law” but “it is being done so that I accept this corrupt cabal of crooks that have been imposed on us. They want me to accept them”.
What laws? Courts attacked by Rangers as if invading an occupied land - lawyers & IHC staff also beaten. This is Pakistan today - a fascist State where High Court has been attacked by paramilitary forces. pic.twitter.com/jJkBmCVO0g
— Shireen Mazari (@ShireenMazari1) May 9, 2023
Since being ousted from office, Mr Khan has been subject to at least one failed assassination attempt which, he told The Independent in an interview in March, left him with lasting nerve damage. PTI officials alleged that paramilitary officers deliberately targeted his wounded leg during Tuesday’s arrest.
Mr Khan accuses the government and the country’s security agencies of being behind the attempt on his life, a charge which both have denied.
His party say that key elections due in the state of Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, have been illegally postponed by the government fearing it will lose out to Mr Khan’s party at the ballot box. The election commission had put off the vote indefinitely citing security concerns, but the country’s supreme court ordered it go ahead this Sunday. National elections in Pakistan are due to take place next year.
Pakistan is enduring an economic crisis with inflation is running at over 36% and an expected IMF bailout delayed by months. Industrial activity has virtually ground to a halt as the central bank has raised interest rates to a record 21%, worsening already-high unemployment and poverty.