Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan was arrested today just as he entered the Islamabad High Court for a hearing in one of the dozens of cases pending since he was ousted from office last year. The 70-year-old cricketer-turned-politician is facing charges ranging from corruption to terrorism, but he says the accusations are part of a campaign by his successor to discredit him.
Khan’s party, Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), said paramilitary forces took him into custody from the court premises. “PTI condemns the illegal detention of its leader from the IHC,” the party tweeted. Leaders from the party say they will hold nationwide protests to demand Khan’s release.
Local media reports say the former prime minister entered the Islamabad courthouse to attend a hearing where he is accused of illegally profiting from state gifts and concealing his assets. But shortly after he arrived at the front gate, contingents of paramilitary Rangers were seen entering the building behind him. A video of them surrounding him and dragging him out into an armored vehicle has been shared on social media.
The Rangers are a powerful paramilitary force believed to be controlled by forces considered above the law in Pakistan. The government defended the arrest, saying Mr. Khan had failed to appear in court despite being issued notices. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said he was also charged with causing the country’s treasury losses.
But the arrest is widely viewed as an attempt to undermine Khan’s credibility, just days after he took on the country’s powerful army for allegedly hatching a plot to kill him. The military has a long history of wielding undue influence in Pakistan, struggling to contain a dangerous security situation and a deep economic crisis.
The PTI says it will file a complaint against the military for its interference in judicial matters. The party’s lawyer told Al Jazeera that the Rangers’ entry into the Islamabad court clearly violated the law. He called for the resignation of police chief Asif Nawaz Gul, who is in charge of security at the court complex.
The chief justice of the IHC, Aamer Farooq, has reportedly directed the police chief and the interior ministry secretary to appear before the court over the incident. The PTI is meanwhile calling on its supporters to gather outside the court to stage peaceful protests. The party is hoping to pressure the government into calling early national elections. It is a long-held dream of many Pakistanis, but many political crises have repeatedly blocked it. The country also grapples with a massive flood of refugees, exacerbating the economic crisis. The army is also facing a public backlash against its role in Pakistan’s politics, which is perceived as undermining democracy. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of the population supports a civilian government. But critics say the military is retaining its grip on the country’s fragile democracy by using its enormous resources to keep its political opponents at bay.