Imran Khan calls for street protests as Pakistan crisis deepens

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for “freedom” protests nationwide after his dramatic arrest on Tuesday triggered deadly protests across the South Asian nation.

“Freedom does not come easily. You have to snatch it. You have to sacrifice for it,” the 70-year-old leader said in a speech broadcast on YouTube on Saturday night a day after he was released after the intervention of the Supreme Court.

He called for supporters to hold protests “at the end of your streets and villages” across the country on Sunday evening for one hour starting at 5:30pm (12:30 GMT).

Khan, who has been slapped with a slew of cases since he was removed from power last April, was freed on bail on Friday after his detention in a corruption case was declared unlawful by the top court. Several top leaders of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party still remain under arrest.

Khan’s arrest, which his supporters called a “kidnapping”, shocked the nation, triggering street protests. Calling for his release, supporters blocked roads and damaged property belonging to the military, who they blame for Khan’s removal.

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party activists and supporters gather outside Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan's residence to listen his speech, in Zaman Park in Lahore on May 13, 2023
PTI members and supporters gather outside former Prime Minister Khan’s residence to listen to his speech, in Zaman Park in Lahore [Arif Ali/AFP]

Sunday morning was quiet after several days of violence and political chaos. Khan has remained steadfast in his demand for immediate elections. He has emerged as the country’s most popular leader and has held numerous rallies since his removal to call for national elections.

Khan survived an assassination attempt last year during one of his large rallies for which he has blamed the country’s powerful army.

“The army chief’s actions have made our military bad. It is because of him, not because of me,” Khan said from his home in Lahore. On Friday, he told reporters that “one man, the army chief” was behind his arrest.

Pakistan’s military has staged three coups since the country was founded in 1947. It has directly ruled over the country for more than three decades and enjoys massive influence in domestic politics.

The military has historically intervened, citing economic or political instability in the country. However, despite widespread fears about another intervention during months of tumult, the military said it stood by the democratic process.

“The army’s senior leadership, the chief of army staff, places its complete trust in democracy. There is no question of martial law,” chief military spokesman Major-General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry told Geo News channel on Saturday.

Thousands arrested

Meanwhile, Khan has distanced himself from the attacks against the military’s installations at the protests, denying his party workers were involved and calling for an independent investigation into the violence.

The army, which denies the accusations made by Khan, on Saturday warned against attempts to create “misperceptions” against the institution.

At least nine people died in the unrest last week, police and hospitals have said. No official casualty figures have been announced yet.

Policemen fire teargas shells to disperse Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party activists and supporters of former Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan trying to reach the Islamabad High Court during Khan's hearing, in Islamabad
Policemen fire tear gas shells to disperse PTI party members and supporters of Khan [Farooq Naeem/AFP]

Hundreds of police officers were injured and more than 4,000 people detained, mostly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, according to authorities.

At least 10 senior PTI leaders, including a former foreign minister, have been arrested since the protests began, one of Khan’s lawyers said.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, the head of a shaky coalition, on Saturday warned that those involved in “facilitating, abetting and perpetrating” the violence should be arrested within 72 hours.

Major social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter remain inaccessible. The Ministry of Interior had instructed the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to suspend mobile internet services across the country, and blocked access to the three social media networks, on Tuesday night.

Mobile data services had been partly restored around the country as of Saturday.

The political upheaval in the country has been simmering for months, with Khan attempting to disrupt the coalition government by dissolving two provincial parliaments he controlled and agitating for early elections.

Khan is a cricket star-turned-politician who was removed as prime minister in April 2022 in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. He accuses an army role in his removal.

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