Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan Niazi has been charged under the country’s antiterrorism act.
This move marks a drastic escalation in the tense power struggle between the country’s current government led by Shahbaz Sharif and its former leader that threatens to set off a fresh round of public unrest and turmoil.
Khan was ousted from power back in April due to a no-confidence vote that was initiated against him.
The charges were imposed on him a day after he gave a speech at a rally in Islamabad. He condemned the recent arrest of one of his top aides and 'threatened' senior police officers and a judge involved in the case. Khan vowed to file legal cases against them. "We will not spare you", he said.
The case against Khan
The police report that lays out the charges against him states that his comments tantamount to an attempt at intimidating the country's judiciary and police.
According to local media reports, Khan has not yet been arrested.
"Hundreds of the former prime minister's supporters gathered outside his home in Islamabad after news of the investigation broke", reports the BBC.
His supporters have camped outside the gate of his hilltop residence of Bani Gala, chanting and singing in support of the former leader.
It is not clear if he is at home.
His supporters have vowed to "take over" the capital if police try to detain him.
"If Imran Khan is arrested... we will take over Islamabad," tweeted a former minister in Mr Khan's cabinet, Ali Amin Gandapur.
Imran Khan—the opposition leader
After being ousted from power, Khan has continued to tour across the country, giving speeches to his supporters. His rallies have drawn in significant crowds.
In his speeches he has called for fresh elections and has been fiercely criticising both the government and the army.
“Imran Khan is clearly an order of magnitude stronger than he was when he removed — the removal was probably the best thing to happen to him,” says Adil Najam, the dean of Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and an expert on Pakistani politics.
As Khan struggles to make a political comeback, he and his supporters face an uphill task.
Pakistan’s media regulatory authority has imposed a ban on the live broadcast of his speeches on news television channels. Pakistan's media regulatory authority claims that Khan's speeches amount to 'hate speech' against state institutions.
On Sunday, Khan criticised the ban in another political rally in the city of Rawalpindi.
"What crime has Imran Khan committed? I will never accept this gang of thieves," he said to his supporters.
His party and he himself have also accused the government of blocking access to YouTube halfway through his speech in an effort to prevent people from listening to him live.
Many Pakistani journalists and talk show hosts, who are sympathetic to Khan, claim that they have been harassed and threatened by the state authorities in recent weeks.
The case of Shahbaz Gill
Shahbaz Gill, a senior aide to Khan, was imprisoned earlier this month under sedition charges.
Gill is accused of making 'anti-military comments' on a television talk show. It is alleged that he called on military officers to defy orders from the top brass. It is believed that he was an attempting to incite rebellion within the ranks of the army.
Gill made these comments in the popular cable news channel ARY news. This channel has now been forced off the air.
Khan and his party leaders claim that Gill was tortured and sexually abused while in custody.
Senior government ministers and Islamabad police officials deny these accusations.
The mess that is Pakistan
Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation with the world’s second-largest Muslim population.
The Islamic Republic has struggled with political instability and military coups since its inception.
Even though the country has a civilian government, the military is widely believed to be the country's primary power broker. The military wields an outsized influence over the nation's electoral politics.
The current crackdown on Khan is a rather stark change in fortunes for him.
When he was elected a PM back in 2018, many believe he did so by striking a back room deal with the army. At that time, his political opponents alleged that the security forces carried out a campaign of intimidation and coercion which undermined opponents of Khan and helped him win the elections.
As time passed, it appeared that Pakistan's military leaders withdrew their support for Khan.
After being ousted from power, Khan has accused the Pakistani military of conspiring with the United States to topple his government. “Are you really neutral or not?” said Khan on Sunday, whilst addressing his supports in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
The fear now is that if Khan is indeed arrested, the country might witness violent street protests.
“Hundreds of people are gathered at the residence of Mr. Khan and thousands are headed here from other parts of the country to express support for their leader. Police have now retreated after looking at the huge number of people here. Let’s see what happens next," said Mr. Chaudhry, the senior leader of Khan’s party.
Islamabad's High Court has granted him a three-day protective bail.
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