Aug 22, 2022 - World

Pakistan on edge over terrorism case against ex-PM Imran Khan

Imran Khan at a rally in Lahore on Aug. 13. Photo: Arif Ali/AFP via Getty

Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan have surrounded his home to prevent police from arresting him on terrorism charges.

Why it matters: Since being ousted in April, Khan has been mobilizing huge crowds while railing against the government and breaking a long-standing taboo by criticizing the military. The threat of arrest raises the stakes of that showdown dramatically.

Driving the news: At a rally on Saturday, Khan named a police chief and judge involved in a treason case against one of his aides, and said, "We will not spare you, we will sue you," per Reuters.

  • The police deemed that a direct threat and charged Khan with spreading terrorism. Pakistan's information minister accused him of "inciting the people to violence, lawlessness, rebellion and riot."
  • Pakistan's media regulator also banned live coverage of Khan's speeches.

Between the lines: Khan's aide, Shahbaz Gill, was arrested after calling on members of the military to reject "illegal orders" from their superiors, hinting at the idea that military leaders have turned on Khan but the rank-and-file stands behind him.

  • Analysts believe the military, Pakistan's most powerful institution, helped bring Khan to power and later removed him.

Khan's removal in a no-confidence vote remains extremely contentious.

  • The new government, led by Shehbaz Sharif, claims Khan's economic mismanagement was his undoing. Pakistan is in the midst of a debt crisis made worse by spikes in the cost of food and fuel.
  • Khan claims, without evidence, that his ouster was engineered by the U.S. because he was too close to China and Russia. The U.S. denies that, but Khan's anti-U.S. rhetoric has energized his supporters.

What we're watching: Khan is back in campaign mode with a potent sense of grievance and a devoted base of support — a role to which the former cricket star, who previously spent two decades in opposition, is well-suited.

  • His party won a crushing upset in regional elections last month, and Khan has been holding huge rallies to pressure the government to hold early elections.
  • "Every effort Pakistan's government makes to weaken Imran Khan will only end up making him stronger," contends Michael Kugelman, an expert on Pakistan at the Wilson Center. "[D]ysfunctional and repressive policies play to his strengths as a populist and enable him to channel public outrage to his advantage."

What's next: Khan's lawyer said Monday that he'd been granted three days of pre-arrest bail, likely meaning he won't be arrested in that time. However, the Islamabad High Court launched separate contempt of court proceedings over Khan's comments about the judge.

  • For now, Khan's supporters have vowed to remain outside his home. "Police will have to step over our dead bodies before they get to him. He is our last hope," one man told the BBC.
  • If Khan is arrested, "we will take over Islamabad," a former senior official from Khan's party threatened.

Worth noting: The government seems more focused on the feud with Khan than on responding to floods that have killed more than 600 people, notes Madiha Afzal of Brookings.

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