Pakistani ex-PM Imran Khan's supporters rally, taunt police

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Hundreds of supporters of Pakistan’s former prime minister on Wednesday defied a ban on rallies in a commercial area of the city of Lahore, taunting police and asking to be arrested en masse.

The protest is part Imran Khan's latest campaign dubbed “fill the jail cells" with detainees — or “jail bharo" in Urdu — as a way to pressure the administration into holding early elections.

But as the rally by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf opposition party got under way in Lahore, police made no move to detain Khan’s supporters.

At that point, several protesters barged into a police van parked nearby, demanding they be taken into custody. Police officers at the scene insisted they were not going to arrest them.

Khan last week called on his party and supporters to invite the police to arrest them in Lahore, the capital of the eastern Punjab province, where the former prime minister has a strong following.

Lahore is also the home city of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who replaced Khan after a no-confidence in the parliament last April. Since then, Khan — who has claimed his ouster was a conspiracy by Sharif and Washington — has been seeking early elections.

The United States and Sharif's government have denied any conspiracy and the prime minister has rejected calls for early elections. The vote, Sharif has said, would be held as planned later this year.

“This so-called jail bharo campaign by Imran Khan is just a political stunt and nothing else," Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb told reporters.

She said Khan himself was safe from arrest after getting a preemptive bail order from a court in Lahore days ago, which enables him to avoid arrest.

“He should voluntarily offer his arrest instead of asking his supporters to fill the jails," Aurangzeb added.

Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician, was not at the rally even though it was taking place in his hometown. He was wounded in the leg in a gun attack while leading a rally toward the capital, Islamabad, last November. One of Khan’s supporters was killed and several others were wounded in the attack.

Since then, Khan has led the anti-government campaign from his home.

Earlier Wednesday, Asad Omar, a senior leader from Khan's party, addressed the rally in Lahore, saying Khan's supporters were going to jail “to get real freedom."

A local TV later broadcast footage of Omar, and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, another senior leader from Khan's party, climbing into a police van and making victory signs and posing for photographers. Police asked them not to sit inside the van.

Police said the opposition politicians wanted to force the police van to take them to the city's jail, where no one can be held without being arrested.

In October, Pakistan's elections commission disqualified Khan from holding public office for five years after finding he had unlawfully sold state gifts and concealed assets as premier. Khan denies the charge and has filed a motion with a court to challenge the commission.

In January, provincial lawmakers from Khan's party dissolved two legislatures — in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces — where the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf had majority seats, in a failed attempt to force early federal elections.


Ahmed reported from Islamabad.