Pakistani police kept up their siege around the home of Imran Khan as a 24-hour deadline given to the former premier to hand over suspects allegedly sheltered inside expired on Thursday.
The siege and the authorities’ demand for the suspects, wanted in violent protests over Khan’s recent detention, have angered the former prime minister’s many followers and raised fears of renewed clashes between them and security forces.
Last week, Khan’s supporters attacked public property and military installations after he was dragged out of a courtroom and arrested in a graft case. At least 10 people were killed in clashes with police across the country in the days that followed. The violence subsided only when Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered Khan’s release.
On Tuesday, Khan demanded a probe into the violence, but denied his supporters were behind it. Khan accused Pakistan’s ruling party of trying to foment trouble between his supporters and the army, without offering any evidence of his claim. He was speaking at a media conference held at his house, despite police surrounding it.
The popular opposition leader was freed from custody over the weekend and returned to his home in an upscale district of Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city and the capital of the Punjab region. Dozens of his supporters have been staying there with him, along with private guards. Police surrounded the residence on Wednesday, saying they want 40 suspects handed over.
The ultimatum for Khan ended at 2 p.m. local time, but there were no immediate signs of unusual movement by police. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, invited reporters to the house to witness any police raid.
Hours after the expiry of the ultimatum, Hassan Javed, a senior police official, told reporters that officers were waiting for a signal from the government to launch the raid. He said police captured at least eight suspects after they left Khan’s house and tried to escape via a nearby canal.
Typically between 200 to 300 of Khan’s supporters, holding sticks, guard his residence around the clock, but most disappeared overnight. Police have barricaded a key road leading to the house and asked residents to use an alternate route.
“Probably my last tweet before my next arrest,” the 70-year-old popular opposition leader tweeted Wednesday, after the siege started. “Police have surrounded my house.”
Later, Khan addressed his supporters saying that the police can only search his house with a search warrant and “not barge in, creating chaos.”
According to Amir Mir, a spokesman for the Punjab provincial government, police were ready to use firearms if attacked. He told a news conference Thursday that at least 3,400 suspects linked to the clashes have been arrested and that more raids are planned.
Mir said authorities would send police to search Khan’s residence on Friday, in comments that appeared to defer the threat of clashes overnight with the leader’s supporters.
Pakistani authorities have said they would prosecute civilians involved in recent anti-government protests in military courts. Angered over the recent attacks on military installations, two lawmakers and some senior politicians have quit Khan’s party, saying they cannot support the man who incited people to violence.
The plan to try civilians in military court has drawn criticism from the advocacy group Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Military trials in Pakistan are usually held behind closed doors, depriving civilians of some of their basic rights, including contracting a lawyer of their choice.
Khan was ousted by a non-confidence vote in Parliament last year. He has claimed the ouster was illegal and a Western conspiracy.
He now faces more than 100 legal cases, mainly on charges of inciting people to violence, threatening officials and defying a ban on rallies. He has been summoned by National Accountability Bureau to answer questions Thursday in connection to a graft case he faces along with his wife.
But Khan informed the agency that he could not attend because he was busy struggling to get protection from arrest in many of the cases against him. In his written reply to the agency, he said its probe against him was politically motivated.