Protests at Imran Khan’s arrest widen across Pakistan as crisis ‘deliberately allowed to deteriorate’

Protests across Pakistan continued unabated on Thursday, a day after an accountability court in Islamabad sent Imran Khan to eight days in custody and the police arrested senior leaders of the former prime minister’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and PTI’s senior vice president Fawad Chaudhry, were among those who were taken into custody on Wednesday. Just hours earlier, secretary general Asad Umar was also arrested.

Islamabad police confirmed that other PTI leaders, including Jamshed Iqbal Cheema, Falak Naz Chitrali, Mussarat Jamshed Cheema, and Maleeka Bukhari, were also taken into custody, even as the Supreme Court asked the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to produce Mr Khan “within an hour”.

Local reports said that at least eight people were killed and about 300 injured in protests that started on Tuesday after Mr Khan, PTI’s chair, was arrested from the Islamabad High Court.

Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, in an address to the nation, warned of strict action against protesters. He said: “These terrorist and anti-state elements are being warned to desist from taking the law into their hands, otherwise they will be dealt with iron hands. Safeguarding the motherland and its ideology is more precious than their lives. We will not let their nefarious designs succeed.”

The crackdown on Mr Khan, 70, and other PTI leaders comes in the wake of the former prime minister doubling down on his accusations against senior military intelligence officials of conspiracy against him but the army dismissed these allegations. In November, there was an assassination attempt against Mr Khan.

Right before his appearance at the Islamabad High Court on Tuesday, Mr Khan released a video in which he again accused senior military intelligence official, major general Faisal Naseer, of plotting to kill him twice.

Earlier last month, Pakistan’s election watchdog, as directed by the Supreme Court, had announced poll dates in the crucial Punjab province. 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.

Baqir Sajjad, Pakistan fellow at the Wilson Center, said that the “situation has been deliberately allowed to deteriorate”. He tweeted after Mr Khan’s arrest: “My own assessment of the situation after speaking to some knowledgeable folks is that the situation has been deliberately allowed to deteriorate.”

He said that “the game plan is to manufacture an excuse to keep IK [Imran Khan] locked and impose emergency for two years”.

The former prime minister has been kept in a sub-jail for eight days, as per the accountability court’s order. The Dawn reported that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) will interrogate Mr Khan there. According to the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO), the chair of NAB can designate any place as a sub-jail to detain suspects.

Mr Khan was arrested on Tuesday for a multitude of corruption charges against him. PTI leaders issued calls to supporters to take to the streets to support Mr Khan.

The arrest of Mr Khan is also significant as elections are due to be held in Pakistan no later than October.

The Dawn’s editorial on Thursday attacked the government for arresting Mr Khan in the manner in which the government did. “Mr Khan had indeed been increasingly confrontational against the present dispensation, but was arresting him the only way to ensure peace?”

It added: “Indeed, the arrest only seems to have reinforced the perception that yet another civilian government has joined hands with unelected powers to ‘take out’ a popular political leader simply because they threaten their individual interests.”

Several other Pakistan observers pointed out that the arrest was a “pretext” to detain the former prime minister to ensure he doesn’t return to power in the national elections. Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilcon Center, suggested in his newsletter for Foreign Policy that Mr Khan’s “arrest takes him out of the running, as he can’t stage campaign rallies from a jail cell”.

He wrote that the “paramilitary forces conducted the arrest, which suggests the Pakistani Army may have orchestrated it”. He said there were reports that the state wanted to encourage unrest, “giving it the pretext to keep Khan in detention and even delay elections”.

Another Pakistan observer, Mohammad Taqi, wrote in The Wire that Mr Khan’s arrest and “his party’s violent response would only make things worse” in the country.

“The way the army orchestrated Imran Khan’s arrest smacks of both hubris and denial. As if looking for plausible deniability, the COAS (Chief of Army Staff) was conveniently away in Oman, the PM Shehbaz Sharif had extended his stay in London, and the NAB chairman took off for an Umrah pilgrimage, when the arrest was being made.”

Political analyst Qamar Cheema told DW in an interview that “the way he (Khan) was arrested was not expected, particularly the arrest came from (Pakistan) Rangers (paramilitary federal law enforcement corps) and the style of the arrest was unexpected. The Pakistani military believes that he is trying to create a wedge between the armed forces and the people”.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called for “all parties to refrain from violence”. He stressed the need to respect the right to peaceful assembly” and urged the authorities “to respect due process and the rule of law in proceedings brought against former Prime Minister Khan”.