Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ordered the release of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, two days after his arrest sparked countrywide violence.
Supreme Court chief justice Umar Ata Bandial also asked Khan to issue an appeal to his supporters to remain peaceful, as the country faced growing turmoil in its streets.
The supporters of Khan were seen dancing near the court building to celebrate his release.
After being ousted from power in a no-confidence vote by lawmakers, Khan was faced with multiple corruption charges in Pakistani courts.
With former Prime Minister Imran Khan in custody, Pakistani authorities on Thursday cracked down on his supporters, detaining hundreds in overnight raids and sending troops across the country to rein in the wave of violence that followed his arrest earlier this week.
For this nation accustomed to military takeovers, political crises and violence, the turmoil has been unprecedented. It echoed unrest that followed the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during an election rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. Her supporters at the time, outraged by her killing, rampaged for days across Pakistan.
Clashes with police since Khan’s dramatic arrest on Tuesday have left at least 10 of his supporters dead and dozens injured, along with more than 200 policemen injured. Demonstrators burned down a railway station on the outskirts of the capital, Islamabad, on Wednesday night. On Thursday, they clashed with police in neighborhoods around Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore, setting fire to a police car and blocking a train.
Police said Thursday that nearly 1,600 of Khan supporters were arrested overnight around the country on charges of damaging public property and attacking military installations, bringing the total of those detained since Tuesday to 2,300.
The arrests followed mob attacks on government and military buildings, with protesters torching trucks, cars and police vehicles in the streets and blocking highways. In one incident hours after Khan’s arrest, a mob set fire Tuesday to the sprawling residence of a top army commander in Lahore.
Khan was dragged from a courtroom in Islamabad where he showed up to face graft charges on Tuesday. He is now being held at a police compound in Islamabad where, at a temporary court, a judge on Wednesday ordered the 70-year-old opposition leader detained for at least another eight days, raising the prospect of more unrest.
After briefly hearing a petition from Khan’s lawyer, the Supreme Court on Thursday expressed displeasure over the manner in which Khan was arrested and ordered authorities to present him before it in an hour, raising speculation it would order him freed. Khan’s lawyer had sought his release, arguing that the arrest was illegal.
As police took Khan on Thursday to the Supreme Court amid tight security, the government demanded he remain in custody.
“It would be unfair if you give any reprieve to him,” Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb told a news conference, addressing the top court’s chief justice. She pointed to violence carried out by Khan’s followers, saying the court would be giving a “license to kill to everyone” if the former premier is freed.
Separately Thursday, police filed new terrorism charges against Khan and top leaders from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party on charges of inciting mobs to violence.
In an address to the nation late Wednesday, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif — who took over after Khan was removed in April last year in a no-confidence vote in Parliament — said the unrest by the former premier’s followers had “damaged sensitive public and private property,” forcing him to deploy the military in Islamabad, in Punjab — Pakistan’s most populous province — and in volatile regions of the northwest.
“Such scenes were never seen by the people of Pakistan,” Sharif said, following a Cabinet meeting. “Even patients were taken out of ambulances and ambulances were set on fire.”
Sharif called the attacks “unforgivable,” and warned that those involved in violence would be given exemplary punishment. He said Khan was arrested because of his involvement in corruption, and that there was evidence backing up these charges.
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the late Benazir Bhutto’s son, urged Khan’s followers on Thursday to end the violence but stressed that peaceful protests are their right. “What has happened, has happened. Don’t make things more difficult for yourself,” he said.
Following the violence, the government shut down schools, colleges and universities in Punjab and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, where Khan has a massive grassroots following and where most of the violence was reported. At least seven of the protester deaths so far have been reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and two in Punjab’s capital Lahore, along with one in the southwestern city of Quetta. The government also suspended internet service in various parts of the country.
“We will arrest all those who disrupted law and order,” said Mohson Naqvi, the chief minister in Punjab.
Officials say Khan’s supporters in particular targeted military installations because he has been blaming the military for his 2022 ouster, while also claiming it was a conspiracy by Washington and Sharif’s government — charges that both the United States and Khan’s successor have denied. The military has also said it played no role in Khan’s ouster.
Amid the violence, Khan supporters have attacked the military headquarters in Rawalpindi and security posts in the northwest, torching the security Chakdara fort on the border with Afghanistan. In Lahore on Tuesday night, demonstrators ransacked and burned down the residence of the regional commander, Lt. Gen. Salman Fayyaz Ghani.
The military vowed on Wednesday to respond to attacks by demonstrators with full force. It said the attacks on its installations were launched in an orchestrated manner, and the violence was a “black chapter” in the country’s history.
The military has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of the 75 years since the country gained independence from British colonial rule and wields considerable power over civilian governments.