Pakistan court gives Khan another reprieve from arrest

By Christina Goldbaum and Salman Masood

ISLAMABAD – Former Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared in court in the Pakistani capital Thursday (25) after being charged under the country’s anti-terrorism act, the latest step in an intensifying crackdown on Khan and his allies since he was removed from office in April.

It was his first court appearance since being charged Sunday (21), after giving a speech in which he threatened legal action against police officers and a judge involved in the recent arrest of one of his top aides.

Khan made no public comment during his brief appearance Thursday before an anti-terrorism court in Islamabad, where his bail bond was set at 100,000 rupees, or roughly $450. The court set the next hearing in the case for Wednesday (31) and ordered police not to arrest him before then.

“Pakistan is being mocked all over the world,” Khan said outside the courthouse after the hearing. He said that the government was afraid of his popularity and that the case against him had “made Pakistan look like a banana republic”.

Before the hearing, many in Pakistan had been worried about the possibility of violent unrest. A day earlier, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah had warned that if the court rejected Khan’s bail plea, the government would arrest him — a move that his supporters have said would cross a “red line”.

The charges against Khan have been seen as an escalation of the months-long clash between Pakistan’s current government, led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and its former leader, who has made a stunning political comeback in recent months.

His court appearance was the latest twist in Khan’s political second act, since falling out with the country’s powerful military and being removed from office in a no-confidence vote.

In recent months, Khan has drawn tens of thousands to his rallies, where he has doubled down on accusations that the United States and the Pakistani military conspired to topple his government. His speeches have also tapped into Pakistanis’ growing frustration with the country’s economic downturn, which the current government has struggled to address.

His message has resonated widely, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, has won seats in provincial elections in two crucial regions.

“I would say there is a soft revolution taking place in Pakistan,” Khan said in an hour-long interview with New York Times journalists Wednesday (24). “I never thought in my life I would see this sort of thing happening in the country — people sort of spontaneously coming out without being led out by political parties.”

But his growing popularity has also prompted a clampdown on Khan’s supporters and allies, in what is widely considered a coordinated campaign by authorities to force him out of politics.

Journalists considered “pro-Khan” have been harassed, intimidated and arrested by authorities, he said. A top aide to Khan, Shahbaz Gill, was imprisoned after making anti-military remarks, and the television channel that broadcast them was forced off the air. Khan has accused authorities of torturing Gill, who remains in custody. Government officials have denied the claim.

In the interview Wednesday, Khan went to lengths not to directly condemn the military, which has long served as the true power broker in Pakistani politics.

But in toeing a careful line, Khan suggested the military establishment had played a role in the current crackdown, claiming that some officials involved in detaining Gill had said they were being “pushed from behind” — a common phrase in Pakistan referring to coming under military pressure.

The Pakistani military has denied accusations that it has played any role in the recent clampdown, insisting the institution has adopted a “neutral” stance amid the political uncertainty. Military officials have also emphasized that the military is not involved with police cases and civilian courts.

Khan’s attorneys claim that the case against him is little more than a sham. Islamabad police charged Khan under a section of the country’s anti-terrorism laws, and a police report stated that he had “terrorized and threatened top police officials and a respected female additional sessions judge” during the speech.

“We won’t spare you,” Khan had said, addressing the officials.

Khan has called for fresh elections. And he has repeatedly insisted that he hopes the country can avoid violent unrest even as political tensions build.

“One thing I don’t want is violence,” he said. “That would not suit us. That would suit the guys who have been put in power, because the last thing they want are elections. For us, any violence or disruption would mean there won’t be an election.”

But given widespread frustration over the economic crisis and a political scene that has been dominated for decades by often-corrupt family dynasties, many fear that any street action over Khan’s fate could easily spill into violent unrest.

“There’s been this ratcheting up of the rhetoric, the instigation,” said Adil Najam, a professor at Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and an expert on Pakistani politics. “I cannot imagine a world where his arrest — if it happens — will go down quietly.”

-New York Times



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