Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the release of former prime minister Imran Khan, who was dragged from the Islamabad High Court by paramilitary troops on Tuesday. He was arrested after previously unsuccessful attempts to apprehend him.
Even for a nation accustomed to military takeovers, political crises and violence, the turmoil of the past week has been unprecedented. Since Mr. Khan’s dramatic arrest, protesters have been clashing with police in areas around the country, and mobs have attacked military and government sites. Authorities responded with a crackdown on the 70-year-old opposition leader’s supporters, arresting more than 2,000 so far. At least 10 people have been killed in clashes since Tuesday.
Who is Imran Khan and what’s his background?
Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi was born in Lahore into an affluent family in 1952 and was educated at Oxford University. He rose to international prominence in the late 1970s as a cricketer and was previously married to British heiress Jemima Goldsmith. After leading Pakistan to victory in the 1992 cricket World Cup, he pivoted from the cricket pitch to a career in politics in the 1990s, establishing his own party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice.
The sportsman turned politician was elected as Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018, on a platform promising to fight corruption and revive the country’s economy. He was ousted in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April, 2022, and has since led a popular campaign against the current government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, accusing it of colluding with the military to remove him from office. He remains the leading opposition figure in Pakistan.
Why was Imran Khan arrested?
Mr. Khan was arrested on corruption charges Tuesday connected to a case involving the transfer of land for Al-Qadir University, near Islamabad. Pakistani officials have accused him of illegally buying land from Malik Riaz Hussain, a real estate tycoon, while serving as prime minister, resulting in more than US$239-million in losses to the national exchequer. Mr. Khan has denied the accusations, calling them politically motivated. If convicted, Mr. Khan could be disqualified from standing for political office.
His arrest prompted supporters to storm military buildings and ransack the residence of a top army general in the eastern city of Lahore. Other state buildings and assets have been attacked by protesters. The Pakistan government said on Wednesday it had approved requests from two of Pakistan’s four provinces – Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both Khan strongholds – and the federal capital Islamabad to deploy troops to restore order.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Khan’s arrest and subsequent developments are a “very tense moment” for the South Asian country, which has a population of 230 million.
Meanwhile, Mr. Khan’s supporters have branded his arrest as an “abduction.” “Khan was arrested while present in court. It puts the entire Pakistani justice system under a cloud,” Torek Farhadi, veteran regional analyst and a former International Monetary Fund adviser, told The Globe.
How does Imran Khan’s arrest add to Pakistan’s economic challenges?
Mr. Khan’s arrest raises fresh questions about Pakistan’s political future ahead of national elections later this year. It also comes at a time of economic turmoil, when the cash-strapped, nuclear-armed nation is trying to avoid a default.
Some analysts believe Mr. Khan’s arrest would throw into jeopardy a potential IMF package for Pakistan. Islamabad has been trying to reach an agreement with the IMF to restart a US$6.5-billion loan program that has stalled since November, in an effort to keep the economy afloat.
“Even if the IMF offered the financial package under negotiations today, with this level of political instability it wouldn’t shore up Pakistan’s economy,” Mr. Farhadi said.
What happens next?
As the Supreme Court ruled Mr. Khan’s dramatic arrest two days ago was illegal, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial on Thursday urged him to appeal to his supporters to remain peaceful.
Though Mr. Khan was released from custody, the court ordered him to be kept under protection of security forces in a safe location in the capital, Islamabad, the head of his legal team, Babar Awan, told reporters. Mr. Awan underlined that the opposition leader is a “free citizen” and will be allowed to meet with lawyers and supporters. Mr. Khan is expected to make another appearance in the Islamabad High Court on Friday.
With reports from Associated Press and Reuters.
This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights with funding from Meta Journalism Project