Imran Khan calls for street protests as Pakistan’s crisis deepens

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By Webdesk

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

“Freedom doesn’t come easily. You have to get it. You have to sacrifice for it,” the 70-year-old leader said in a speech broadcast on YouTube on Saturday evening, a day after he was released from custody after the Supreme Court intervened.

He called on supporters to protest for an hour “at the end of your streets and villages” across the country on Sunday evening, starting at 5.30pm (12.30pm GMT).

Khan, who has been hit with a slew of cases since his impeachment last April, was released on bail on Friday after his detention in a corruption case was ruled illegal by the top court. Several top leaders of Khan’s Pakistani party Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are still being arrested.

Khan’s arrest, which his supporters called a “kidnapping”, shocked the nation and sparked street protests. Supporters called for his release and blocked roads and damaged army property, which they blame for Khan’s removal.

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party activists and supporters gather outside the residence of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan to listen to his speech, at 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, at Zaman Park in Lahore [Arif Ali/AFP]

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

Khan survived an assassination attempt last year at one of his large gatherings for which he blamed the country’s powerful military.

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

The Pakistani military has staged three coups since the country was founded in 1947. It has ruled the country directly for more than three decades and has enormous influence in domestic politics.

The military has traditionally intervened, citing economic or political instability in the country. Despite widespread fears of another intervention amid months of turmoil, the military said it stood by the democratic process.

“The senior leadership of the army, the chief of staff of the army, has complete confidence in democracy. There is no martial law,” the chief military spokesman, Major General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry, told the Geo News channel on Saturday.

Thousands arrested

Meanwhile, Khan has distanced himself from attacks on the military installations during the protests, denying involvement of his party associates and calling for an independent investigation into the violence.

The army, which denies Khan’s allegations, warned on Saturday of attempts to create “misconceptions” against the institution.

According to the police and hospitals, at least nine people were killed in the unrest last week. Official casualty figures have not yet been released.

Police officers fire tear gas canisters to disperse Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party activists and supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as they try to reach the Islamabad High Court during Khan's hearing, in Islamabad
Police officers fire tear gas grenades to disperse PTI party members and supporters of Khan [Farooq Naeem/AFP]

Authorities said hundreds of police officers were injured and more than 4,000 people were detained, mostly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

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, warned on Saturday that those involved in “facilitating, inciting and perpetrating” the violence must be arrested within 72 hours.

Large social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter remain inaccessible. The Interior Ministry had instructed Pakistan’s telecommunications authority to suspend mobile internet services across the country and blocked access to the three social media networks on Tuesday evening.

Mobile data services were partially restored across the country as of Saturday.

Political turmoil in the country has been simmering for months, with Khan trying to disrupt the coalition government by dissolving two provincial parliaments he controls and campaigning for snap elections.

Khan is a cricket star turned politician who was ousted as Prime Minister in April 2022 in a parliamentary vote of no confidence. He blames a role of the military in his removal.

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