Pakistan court orders Imran Khan released in corruption case and not rearrested for at least two weeks

Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan has claimed the courts are the country’s only protection from the “law of the jungle” after he was ordered freed from custody in a corruption case.

The Islamabad High Court ruled that Mr Khan should be immediately released and granted two weeks’ bail, a day after the Supreme Court ruled his dramatic arrest – on court premises earlier in the week – was illegal. That arrest sparked violent protests and unrest across the country.

The judges granted the former cricket star-turned-politician protected bail, meaning he can not be rearrested on the charges in the case, involving allegations of illegal land transfers, for two weeks.

“I must say I expected this from our judiciary, because the only hope now left, the only thin line between a banana republic and a democracy is the judiciary," Mr Khan said in the court premises. "Otherwise, there is no rule of law here. It is a complete law of the jungle. Might is right, you can be picked up."

His chief lawyer, Babar Awan, praised the ruling, and said Mr Khan was now “a free man”.

Mr Khan and his lawyers remained in the court after the initial decision as they petitioned the judges to hand down similar protections in the other corruption cases against him. Mr Khan has denied all the allegations against him and says they are politically motivated.

A short while later, the court said Mr Khan could not be arrested – at least until next week – in any other pending corruption cases against him.

He stayed overnight at a police guesthouse but was no longer a detainee.

Mr Khan spoke first with the media after the first hearing was adjourned. In a video from Independent Urdu, Mr Khan can be heard saying: “I was sitting in the high court. They had no reason to arrest me. I was abducted.”

Many cities in Pakistan saw violent protests following his arrest by the anti-graft agency on Tuesday. His supporters have stormed military establishments and set ablaze a state broadcaster building. A crackdown has led to nearly 3,000 arrests and the army being deployed for help. At least 10 people are said to have been killed in the violence. Dozens of protesters and more than 200 police officers have been injured.

Mr Khan arrived for the hearing of his bail plea amid tight security, and chaotic scenes outside court. A two-judge bench had been due to hear the case on Friday morning but adjourned the hearing due to shouting and slogan-chanting inside the court premises. A lawyer for Mr Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), claimed the unruly elements inside court who started chanting slogans were not related to the party.

Asked if he incited the violent scenes this week that saw 10 killed in clashes between the armed forces and PTI supporters, Mr Khan told journalists: “How could I have stopped whatever happened? I had already told [you] that there would be a reaction to the arrest.”

He continued: “When I was [taken into custody], then how can I be responsible?” the former prime minister asked.

The Supreme Court on Thursday asked the Islamabad High Court to reconsider its earlier order on the legality of Mr Khan’s arrest. The government said that they would find a way to get Mr Khan back into custody

“We will try to get his bail rejected,” Pakistan interior minister Rana Sanaullah, meanwhile, told Geo TV. “The facilitation they are getting from the judiciary, they are being welcomed, good wishes are being expressed for them. But, according to the law, we will do what we can.”

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Centre, told The Independent earlier that “the next phase of the crisis could play out in the courts”.

He said that the “Supreme Court is already at odds with the government after it rejected Islamabad’s decision to delay provincial elections”. Earlier last month, Pakistan’s election watchdog, as directed by the Supreme Court, had announced poll dates in the crucial province of Punjab, where PTI enjoys strong support. Polls were scheduled to be held on 14 May. The government had been trying to delay the polls but Supreme Court ruled that the delay was unconstitutional.

Mr Kugelman continued: “Such is the complexity of Pakistan’s political crisis that there are two confrontations playing out: The longstanding one between Khan and the state, and now a growing one between the state and the courts.”

Speaking at a special cabinet meeting on Friday to discuss the developments, Pakistan’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, criticised the Supreme Court ruling, saying there was a “genuine corruption case” against Mr Khan, “but the judiciary has become a stone wall protecting him.”

Pakistan’s president, Arif Alvi, also had a meeting with Mr Khan after the hearings. Mr Alvi has been trying to defuse tension between Mr Khan and Mr Sharif’s government to avoid an escalation.

A court conviction would disqualify Mr Khan from standing for office, potentially for life depending on the charges. Elections are due later this year.

Mr Kugelman explained: “Let’s be clear, the civilian and military leadership don’t want Khan to have a chance to take back power. Arresting him may prevent him from campaigning, but it doesn’t prevent him from contesting elections. Disqualification would remove him from the electoral picture once and for all.”

Mr Khan’s popularity has risen since he was removed from power in April last year. He has accused the military, once his close ally, of orchestrating his downfall and has said he was the subject of an assassination attempt last November. Mr Khan has become one of the military's most vocal critics.

The government’s crackdown on senior PTI officials continued with several high-ranking female members – including spokesperson Dr Shireen Mazari and Dr Yasmin Rashid – being taken into custody on Friday.

Their arrests came a day after senior PTI members including Asad Umar, Fawad Chaudhry, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Ali Mohammad Khan and Senator Ejaz Chaudhry were detained by the police.

On Friday, right after the Islamabad High Court adjourned the hearing, PTI lawyer Babar Awan claimed to the media that a police team from Lahore had left for Islamabad to arrest Mr Khan in “new cases”.