PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Police have filed terrorism charges against former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, authorities said Monday, escalating political tensions in the country as the ousted premier holds mass rallies seeking to return to office.
The charges were filed over a speech Khan gave in Islamabad on Saturday, in which he vowed to sue police officers and a female judge and alleged that a close aide had been tortured after his arrest.
Khan himself appeared to still be free, and he had not immediately addressed the police charge sheet. Khan’s political party — Tehreek-e-Insaf, now in the opposition — published online videos showing supporters surrounding his home to potentially stop police from reaching it.
A senior party leader, Shaukat Yousafzai, told NBC News that hundreds of police officers had gathered outside Khan's residence in Islamabad but had not yet arrested him. He said that thousands of party workers had arrived in the capital and that many others were on the way to defend their leader.
“He is a law-abiding citizen of the country and doesn’t want to violate the law, but if the government wanted to arrest him under same charges of sedition, then it should also take action against all other politicians accused of sedition charges,” Yousafzai said.
Tehreek-e-Insaf warned that it will hold nationwide rallies if Khan is arrested.
Under Pakistan’s legal system, police file what is known as a first information report about charges against an accused person to a magistrate judge, who allows the investigation to move forward. Typically, police then arrest and question the accused.
The report against Khan includes testimony from Magistrate Judge Ali Javed, who described being at the Islamabad rally on Saturday and hearing Khan criticize another judge and the inspector-general of Pakistan’s police. Khan reportedly went on to say: “You also get ready for it — we will also take action against you. All of you must be ashamed.”
Khan could face several years in prison on the new charges, which accuse him of threatening police officers and the judge. However, he has not been detained on other, lesser charges levied against him in his recent campaigning against the government.
The Pakistani judiciary also has a history of politicization and taking sides in power struggles among the military, the civilian government and opposition politicians, according to the Washington-based advocacy group Freedom House.
Khan came to power in 2018, promising to break the pattern of family rule in Pakistan. His opponents contend he was elected with help from the powerful military, which has ruled the country for half of its 75-year history.
In seeking Khan’s ouster this year, the opposition had accused him of economic mismanagement as inflation soars and the Pakistani rupee plummets in value. The parliamentary no-confidence vote in April that ousted Khan capped months of political turmoil and a constitutional crisis that required the Supreme Court to step in. Meanwhile, it appeared the military similarly had cooled to Khan.
Khan alleged without providing evidence that the Pakistani military took part in a U.S. plot to oust him after he denied the U.S. bases in Pakistan.
Washington, the Pakistani military and the government of Khan’s successor, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, have all denied that. Meanwhile, Khan has been carrying out a series of mass rallies to pressure Sharif’s government.
In his latest speech Sunday night at a rally in Rawalpindi, outside Islamabad, Khan said so-called neutrals were behind the recent crackdown against his party. He has in the past used the phrase “neutrals” for the military.
On Sunday, the internet-access advocacy group NetBlocks said internet services in the country blocked access to YouTube after Khan broadcast a live speech on the platform despite a ban issued by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.