Ex-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrested, sparking violence

ISLAMABAD — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested and dragged out of court on Tuesday as he appeared to face charges in several corruption cases, a dramatic escalation in political tensions that sparked violent protests by his supporters angry in almost every major city in the country.

The arrest of Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022 but remains the main opposition figure, represented the latest confrontation to rock Pakistan, which has seen former prime ministers arrested in over the years and the interventions of its powerful army.

He was kicked out of the Islamabad High Court by security officers from the National Accountability Office, said Fawad Chaudhry, a senior member of his Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf party, then pushed into an armored car and taken away.

Chaudhry has denounced the 71-year-old former cricket star’s arrest as “kidnapping”. Pakistani independent television GEO TV broadcast a video of Khan being taken away.

A fight broke out between Khan’s supporters and the police outside the court. Some of Khan’s lawyers and supporters were injured in the melee, as were several police officers, Chaudhry said. Khan’s party complained to the court, which requested a police report explaining the charges of Khan’s arrest.

Khan was taken to the garrison town of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, for questioning at the offices of the National Accountability Bureau, according to police and government officials. He was also due to undergo a routine medical examination, police said.

Khan had arrived at the Islamabad High Court from Lahore, where he lives, to face charges in the corruption cases.

Tuesday’s arrest was based on a new National Accountability Bureau warrant obtained last week in a separate corruption case for which Khan had not been released on bail, leaving him vulnerable to seizure, and his lawyers disputed the legality of the arrest. He is due to appear in an anti-corruption court on Wednesday, officials said.

“Imran Khan was arrested because he was wanted in a corruption case,” Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told a press conference. He alleged that Pakistan’s treasury lost millions of dollars while Khan was in power due to illegal land purchases from a business tycoon.

At a press conference, Justice Minister Azam Tarar said Khan was arrested because he was not cooperating with investigations. He also denounced violence by Khan supporters, saying protests must remain peaceful.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” he said, shortly after television footage showed burning vehicles and damaged public property in parts of the country.

Authorities said they had banned gatherings in the eastern province of Punjab.

As news of the arrest spread, around 4,000 Khan supporters stormed the senior regional commander’s official residence in Lahore, smashing windows and doors, damaging furniture and staging a sit-in as troops retreated to avoid violence. Protesters also torched police vehicles and blocked major roads.

Protesters also broke down the main gate of the army headquarters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, where troops showed restraint. Hundreds of protesters shouted pro-Khan slogans as they marched towards the sprawling building.

In the port city of Karachi, police brandished batons and fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of Khan supporters who had gathered on a key road.

Raoof Hasan, another leader of Khan’s party, told English television Al Jazeera that the arrest is “a flagrant interference in judicial affairs by the power in place”. Hasan added that Khan was “virtually removed from court.”

Khan’s arrest came hours after he made a video message before heading to Islamabad, saying he was “mentally ready” to be arrested there.

Khan was injured by a gunman during a rally in November, an attack that killed one of his supporters and injured 13. He insisted, without offering any evidence, that there was a plot to murder him, alleging that the Pakistani spy agency was behind the conspiracy. The shooter was immediately arrested and police later released video of him in custody, claiming he acted alone.

In a strong statement Monday, the military accused Khan of “fabricated and malicious allegations” of his involvement in the November shooting, saying they are “extremely unfortunate, deplorable and unacceptable”.

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.

Sharif, whose government is facing mounting economic hardship and struggling to recover from last year’s devastating floods that killed hundreds and caused $30 billion in damage, criticized Khan for attacking the ‘army.

“Let it be crystal clear that you, as a former prime minister, now on trial for corruption, claim legitimacy to overthrow the legal and political system,” Sharif tweeted after Khan’s arrest.

In a statement, the European Union called for “restraint and composure” in the country, through dialogue and the rule of law.

Khan is the seventh former prime minister to be arrested in Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arrested and hanged in 1979. The current Prime Minister’s brother, Nawaz Sharif, who also served as Prime Minister, has been arrested several times on corruption allegations.

In March, police stormed Khan’s residence in Lahore, seeking to arrest him on the basis of a court order in a separate case. Dozens of people, including police officers, were injured in the ensuing clashes. Khan was not arrested at the time and later secured bail in the case.

Khan came to power in 2018 after winning parliamentary elections and initially had good relations with the military which gradually deteriorated.

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