Islamabad (AP) — Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan returned to court Friday to hear whether he will be shielded from renewed arrest or taken back into custody — a decision that put the government and legions of Khan supporters on edge after days of violent confrontations.
The popular 70-year-old opposition leader appeared before the same court from which he was dragged and arrested on Tuesday. The arrest triggered nationwide protests in which his supporters attacked military installations, burned vehicles, and ambulances and looted general stores in various parts of the country. The government responded with a crackdown, arresting nearly 3,000 people.
Friday’s court session is part of a series of complex legal maneuvers.
On Thursday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court declared that Khan’s arrest was unlawful, but then asked the Islamabad High Court — a lower court — to reconsider its initial decision to uphold the arrest.
The Supreme Court said it would respect whatever the Islamabad court rules on Friday. The government has said it would quickly re-arrest Khan if the Islamabad High Court upheld its earlier order.
In an initial brief session of the Islamabad court Friday, the judges heard a request by Khan seeking protection from arrest on the graft charges. As Khan’s supporters in the courtroom chanted, the judge adjourned the session for two hours. The Interior Ministry said Thursday it could arrest Khan on other charges if he is granted protection in the corruption cases.
The government contends that Khan’s release rewards and encourages mob violence. In court Friday, Khan’s chief lawyer Babar Awan told reporters that the government seemed to be adamant to arrest the former prime minister.
Khan’s arrest on Tuesday was a startling and controversial move — agents from the National Accountability Bureau burst into the Islamabad High Court where Khan was attending a session on other charges and dragged him away, putting him into an armored vehicle. The Supreme Court ruled that the arrest was “invalid and unlawful” because it took place from the court premises, violating Khan’s right to justice.
The violence that ensued left at least 10 Khan supporters dead. Dozens of protesters and more than 200 police officers were injured. Protesters torched trucks, cars and police vehicles and blocked highways. Nearly 3,000 supporters from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party have been arrested, including Khan’s deputies.
The controversy surrounding Khan — a figure who inspires both vehement loyalty and furious opposition — threatens to open a deeper vein of turmoil in a country that has seen multiple military takeovers and bouts of violence. The unrest has echoed that which followed the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during an election rally. Her supporters at the time, outraged by her killing, rampaged for days across Pakistan.
Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician, was removed as prime minister last year by a no-confidence vote in Parliament and now leads the opposition. He faces more than 100 legal cases, most involving allegations that he incited violence and threatened police and government officials.
He also faces at least three graft cases, including accusations from the National Accountability Bureau that he accepted millions of dollars worth of property in exchange for providing benefits to a real estate tycoon. A new terrorism charge was filed against him on Thursday for allegedly inciting his followers to violence after his arrest.
Following the Supreme Court’s release order Thursday, Khan spent the night at a government guest house in Islamabad, where he met with family members and friends.
Pakistan’s president, Arif Alvi, also had a meeting with him. Alvi has been trying to defuse tension between Khan and Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government to avoid an escalation.
Sharif convened a special Cabinet meeting on Friday to discuss the latest developments. Members of his government denounced the Supreme Court ruling, accusing the chief judge of bias and saying Khan’s release rewards and encourages violence.