Pakistan Arrests Islamist Ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Country’s Most Popular Politician

Islamist former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested outside the High Court in Islamabad on Tuesday.

Angry mobs of supporters had thwarted previous attempts to take him into custody, so this time security forces in riot gear quickly dragged him into an armored vehicle and whisked him away.

According to the latest poll from Gallup, Imran Khan is the most popular political figure in Pakistan by a considerable margin, enjoying a 61% approval rating versus 32% for Shehbaz Sharif, the current prime minister. The second most popular spot is held by the prime minister’s brother Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party (PML-N) with 36%. 

Khan has been fighting with the Pakistani judicial system over corruption allegations known as the “Toshakhana Case,” after the Pakistani agency that regulates gifts from foreigners to public officials. Several other cases were pending against him at the same time, including terrorism charges related to the one-time playboy athlete’s political comeback as a hardline Islamist populist, and some other corruption allegations.

Khan and his supporters dismiss all of these investigations as politically motivated efforts to shut down his insurgent campaign to regain the office he was ejected from by a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April 2022. Some of the charges against him theoretically bar him from running for office, but that has not slowed down his campaign. The judge presiding over the Toshakhana Case has grown increasingly frustrated with Khan’s refusal to acknowledge the investigation as legitimate or appear in his courtroom.

Previous efforts to serve an arrest warrant on Khan, stymied by the phalanx of supporters from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party surrounding his home in Lahore, were related to the high-profile Toshakhana investigation, but a different set of charges finally got him stuffed into a paddy wagon on Tuesday.

Supporters of former Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan chant slogans outside his house in Lahore on March 5, 2023. Police in Pakistan said officers on March 5 attempted to arrest former prime minister Imran Khan, who is battling several legal cases as he pressures the government for early elections. (ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)

Khan was visiting the Islamabad High Court (IHC) for hearings on the Al-Qadir Trust Case, in which Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi are accused of accepting bribes from a real estate firm called Bahria Town that laundered some 50 billion rupees (about $175 million) in pilfered funds from the national treasury.

Khan and his wife were allegedly paid 5 billion rupees, plus valuable real estate, in exchange for using their political influence to protect the scheme. The Al-Qadir Trust, whose sole trustees are Imran Khan and Bushra Bibi, was allegedly the mechanism used to transmit the bribes.

According to furious officials from Khan’s PTI Party, the former prime minister was at the courthouse undergoing biometric screening when a paramilitary law enforcement squad known as the Rangers physically broke into the screening room, shattering one of its windows, and arrested him under a warrant that was sworn out on May 1. 

Khan’s lawyer claimed that both he and the 71-year-old former prime minister were roughed up during the arrest, including blows to his head and injured leg from police batons. Khan was shot in the leg during an assassination attempt in November 2022 while campaigning in Wazirabad.

“Imran Khan was in the process of getting his biometrics done. I was there in the room,” said PTI lawyer Ali Bukhari. “The Rangers told us to open the doors, but the police objected – but then the Rangers personnel broke the windows and entered the room. Rangers tortured everyone who was present in the room.”

“Former PM Imran Khan has been abducted from Court premises, scores of lawyers and general people have been tortured, Imran Khan has been whisked away by unknown people to an unknown location, Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court has ordered [the interior secretary] and IG police to appear within 15 minutes in the court,” howled PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry soon after the arrest took place.

IHC Chief Justice Aamer Farooq was indeed unhappy with Khan’s sudden and violent arrest on court premises. As Chaudhry indicated, he summoned the Islamabad chief of police, the attorney general, and the interior minister to appear before the court and explain their actions. Farooq said he was showing “restraint” by not summoning Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif as well, but he would consider doing so if the other officials did not satisfy him.

“Come to court and tell us why Imran has been arrested and in which case,” Farooq said. He grew very angry when it took 45 minutes for the summoned officials to show up in his courtroom and they had trouble explaining exactly what Khan was arrested for.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said the shocking arrest was necessary because Khan ignored several previous notices to appear before the High Court.

“The arrest has been conducted by the National Accountability Bureau for causing losses to the national treasury,” he said.

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is Pakistan’s autonomous federal anti-corruption agency. The NAB confirmed on Tuesday morning that it sent the Rangers to arrest Khan, apparently without informing the Islamabad High Court or the Lahore inspector general they were coming.

“Is this not an attack on judicial independence? Is this arrest not illegal?” Chief Justice Farooq exclaimed. “Lawyers have been attacked. My court has been attacked. I have been attacked.”

Khan’s sudden arrest was implicitly necessary because his supporters have a history of driving the police away, but critics of the action accused the Sharif government of kidnapping him from court grounds.

PTI officials claimed the government moved against Khan because he accused an unnamed senior intelligence official of plotting to assassinate him to keep Sharif in power, an allegation he repeated on Tuesday morning before departing for the Islamabad High Court. He has yet to provide any evidence to support these allegations.

Khan rejected a statement from the Inter-Services Public Relations agency (ISPR), the media office of the Pakistani armed forces, that his “irresponsible and baseless allegations” were “extremely unfortunate, deplorable, and unacceptable.”

Khan said the ISPR had no right to demand his “respect” or question his honesty.

“This man tried to kill me twice and whenever an investigation is carried out, I will prove that it was this man and there is a whole gang with him,” he said on Tuesday morning. He claimed the conspiracy to murder him was powerful enough to intimidate police officials out of investigating the attempt on his life in Wazirabad.

Khan also claimed to have thwarted a subsequent attempt by the same government conspirators to kill him and said the reason he ignored orders to appear before the judge in the Toshakhana case was that assassins from the Pakistani spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had taken control of the judicial complex and were lying in wait to kill him.

“I will prove that ISI were present in CTD uniforms and lawyers’ garb. I will prove that a bradier, who I will not name, was there to monitor everything. What was the ISI doing there?” he said.

Khan insisted he was willing to comply with lawful arrest warrants and was “prepared to go to jail,” provided he is satisfied that any given courtroom is not infested with government assassins. He also said he was ready to die fighting if the government hatched a “Dirty Harry” plan to take him down by force. He predicted he would be arrested soon to halt his political campaign.

Prime Minister Sharif rejected Khan’s conspiracy allegations, dismissing his politics as a mixture of “blatant lies, untruths, U-turns, and vicious attacks on institutions.” 

Sharif condemned Khan for “routinely maligning and threatening the Pakistan Army and the intelligence agency for the sake of petty political gains.”

“Did you not resort to constant mud-slinging of the leadership of the army and intelligence agency much before the Wazirabad attack?” Sharif asked Khan, accusing his predecessor of using political influence and mob tactics to pervert the justice system.

“You refused the offer of cooperation from the federal government and boycotted the legal proceedings. You were never interested in finding the truth about the attack but used the condemnable incident for petty political objectives,” Sharif said of the Wazirabad investigation.

Sharif concluded his response to Khan by essentially accusing him of treason for abusing Islamic religious appeals in his populist campaign, and for dispatching a “troll brigade” to mock the six “martyrs” who died in a Pakistani Army helicopter crash in Balochistan in September. 

While PTI leaders expressed due condolences for the dead, some members of Khan’s party wrote social media posts wishing that more high-ranking officers from what they viewed as a corrupt military establishment could have been aboard the chopper when it crashed. The Pakistani Army denounced these comments as “hurtful and derogatory,” saying they caused “deep anguish and distress” among the families of the victims.

Plainclothes police officers beat a supporter of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan as they detain him when he with others blocking a road as protest to condemn the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (W.K. Yousufzai/AP)

Protests broke out in Islamabad and other cities after Khan’s arrest and were met by a heavy police presence. Protesters reportedly broke into several Pakistani Army facilities and were dispersed with tear gas. A melee between Khan supporters and police broke out at the Islamabad High Court after Khan was taken away. Another brawl was reported at the Rawalpindi garrison near Islamabad, where Khan is reportedly being held.

PTI indicated it was in a fighting mood on Tuesday by republishing a video address Khan recorded in 2022 before a previous arrest. In the video, he dismissed the Sharif government as a “corrupt cabal of crooks” and asked his supporters to take to the streets.

“I appeal today to everyone that you all have to come out,” Khan said in the video. “Freedom is not given on a plate – you have to work hard and struggle for it.”

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