Why the arrest of Pakistan’s ex-PM Imran Khan could push the country into chaos

His detention has triggered protests and violence unseen since 2007, when another ex-premier, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated during an election campaign. In the last two days, at least eight people have died in clashes between Khan’s supporters and the police

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during a news conference in Shaukat Khanum hospital, in Lahore, Pakistan, Nov. 4, 2022.K.M. Chaudary (AP)

Pakistan is witnessing a wave of violence following the arrest of popular opposition leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan on corruption charges. The level of unrest has not been seen since 2007, when another former premier — Benazir Bhutto — was assassinated during an election campaign.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that Khan’s arrest was unlawful and let him walk free. But there’s little reason to believe the political crisis will ease as the outspoken politician is still facing a raft of charges.

Footage of Khan being dragged out of court two days earlier sparked outrage among his supporters. Angry protesters torched buildings and vehicles. Authorities have deployed troops in an attempt to contain the clashes. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif vowed a tough response to the attacks and government figures have already decried Khan’s release.

What’s happening in Pakistan?

Since Khan’s arrest on Tuesday, at least eight people have died and dozens have been wounded in clashes between his supporters and police. Protesters have burned buildings and vehicles to the ground. Others blocked roads and set fire to police checkpoints and military facilities. Schools and colleges remain closed in Khan’s regional strongholds. More than 2,000 people have been arrested so far.

Why does Khan’s arrest matter?

Pakistan has a history of military takeovers, political upheaval and social unrest. Khan is the seventh prime minister to be arrested since 1977. Military property, including the home of a top commander, has been destroyed. The current turmoil comes as the already embattled country struggles with a dire economic situation, a spike in militancy, and the impact of last year’s catastrophic floods. This grimness is unlikely to be addressed or resolved soon, further straining living conditions and security for the 220-million population.

Why is there such a strong reaction to Khan’s detention?

Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April 2022 but still has a massive grassroots following, with the power to quickly mobilize thousands of supporters to the streets and stir up a frenzy with his anti-establishment rhetoric. Last November, he was shot in the leg at a rally. He claims both incidents are evidence of a conspiracy against him, a compelling narrative for his followers who believe he was unjustly ousted and is being targeted by the government and the military.

Why was he arrested?

Khan has at least 100 criminal cases filed against him by various government agencies. In some ways his detention was just a matter of time. He was in court on Tuesday for one set of corruption charges but was arrested for another. What’s striking about his detention is how dramatic it was — the anti-graft agency whose agents detained him has not explained why he was taken so publicly, dragged out of court and shoved into an armored vehicle.

The 70-year-old Khan has repeatedly denied all allegations against him.

What happens next?

The government has stepped up security, banned gatherings — and in some places shut down social media. But Khan’s supporters are determined to see him freed and returned to power, saying he is their red line. A crackdown on party activists and leaders will not make them back down. Though Khan has been released, at least for now, the standoff between his supporters and authorities continues — all the while deepening Pakistan’s divisions.

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