ISLAMABAD: Pakistan opposition leaders warned Monday that authorities would cross a “red line” if they arrested former prime minister Imran Khan after he was reported under the anti-terrorism act for comments he made about the judiciary. Since being ousted by a vote of no confidence in April, Khan has held mass rallies across the country, warning state institutions including the military not to back the coalition government led by his long-time political rival Shehbaz Sharif.
Hundreds of people gathered outside Khan’s house Monday – ostensibly to prevent police from reaching him – but the former leader has been fighting a raft of charges for months and has so far not been arrested. “Wherever you are, reach Bani Gala today and show solidarity with Imran Khan,” tweeted former information minister Fawad Chaudhry, referring to Khan’s home. “Imran Khan is our red line.”
A First Information Report was filed with police Sunday – the first step of a process that could lead to formal charges and arrest. Lawyers for Khan preemptively applied for pre-arrest bail at the Islamabad High Court Monday, which was granted until at least Thursday. There was a low-key police presence outside Khan’s residence Monday, with around 500 party supporters gathered in the affluent suburb of Bani Gala.
Muhammad Ayub said he had travelled overnight from Peshawar in the northwest to show support for Khan. “We will protest and will block roads if Khan is arrested,” he told AFP. In a statement, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) said the latest accusations against him were “frivolous”. “We have serious reservations on this politically motivated move which leads towards further instability in the country,” it said.
On Saturday he criticized a magistrate responsible for keeping a PTI official in police custody, after party leaders say he was tortured in detention. Khan’s main goal is an early general election – the next one must be held before October next year – but the government has shown no sign of wanting to go to the polls as it grapples with major economic problems.
Khan swept into power in 2018 thanks to an electorate weary of the dynastic politics of the country’s two major parties, with the former cricket star promising to sweep away decades of entrenched corruption and cronyism. But under his rule the country’s economy went into free fall, and the International Monetary Fund suspended a $6 billion loan program that the new government has only just gotten back on track. Khan also lost the support of the military.
Political Analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi told AFP that filing the latest case against Khan was not symbolic, but rather a genuine attempt to stifle him. “The government is using the state institutions to malign the opposition,” he said, adding ordinary Pakistanis were being hurt by the political wrangling. “The only thing left for the ruling party and the opposition is to malign each other. In the current situation, the real priority should be the economy so that the common man can get some relief.”
Over the weekend, Pakistan’s media watchdog banned television channels from broadcasting live addresses by Khan, saying he was “spreading hate speech”. “His provocative statements against state institutions and officers… is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility,” the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority said. – AFP