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Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan released on bail

The popular 70-year-old opposition leader's arrest triggered nationwide protests in which his supporters attacked military installations, burned vehicles and looted stores.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

A high court in Islamabad has granted former Prime Minister Imran Khan a two-week reprieve from arrest in a graft case and granted him bail on the charges.

Babar Awan, the lawyer for Khan, says the court made the decision on Friday, a day after the country’s Supreme Court asked it a ruling. He says Khan is now “a free man,” and that the decision was just.

The ruling came after Khan returned to court to hear whether he will be shielded from renewed arrest or taken back into custody — a decision that put the government and legions of Khan supporters on edge after days of violent confrontations.

The popular 70-year-old opposition leader appeared before the same court from which he was dragged and arrested on Tuesday. The arrest triggered nationwide protests in which his supporters attacked military installations, burned vehicles, and ambulances and looted general stores in various parts of the country. The government responded with a crackdown, arresting nearly 3,000 people.

Friday’s court session is part of a series of complex legal maneuvers.

On Thursday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court declared that Khan’s arrest was unlawful, but then asked the Islamabad High Court — a lower court — to reconsider its initial decision to uphold the arrest.

The Supreme Court said it would respect whatever the Islamabad court rules on Friday.

In an initial brief session of the Islamabad court Friday, the judges heard a request by Khan seeking protection from arrest on the graft charges. As Khan’s supporters in the courtroom chanted, the judge adjourned the session for two hours. Outside, other supporters set fire to a police vehicle when security forces prevented them from approaching the court building.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ordered the release of Khan, whose arrest earlier this week sparked a wave of violence across the country by his supporters.
Khan's supporters celebrated after his released was ordered on Thursday.Anjum Naveed / AP

The government has said it would quickly re-arrest Khan if the Islamabad High Court upholds its earlier ruling that the initial arrest was legal. It could also take him into custody on other charges if he is granted protection in the corruption cases, the Interior Ministry said Thursday.

The government contends that Khan’s release rewards and encourages mob violence. In court Friday, Khan’s chief lawyer Babar Awan told reporters that the government seemed to be adamant about arresting the former prime minister.

Khan’s arrest on Tuesday was a startling and controversial move — agents from the National Accountability Bureau burst into the Islamabad High Court where Khan was attending a session on other charges and dragged him away, putting him into an armored vehicle. The Supreme Court ruled that the arrest was “invalid and unlawful” because it took place from the court premises, violating Khan’s right to justice.

The violence that ensued left at least 10 Khan supporters dead. Dozens of protesters and more than 200 police officers were injured. Protesters torched trucks, cars and police vehicles and blocked highways. Nearly 3,000 supporters from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party have been arrested, including Khan’s deputies.

Khan’s supporters on Friday again resorted to violence, setting fire to a police vehicle not far from the court where he was appearing. The police stopped them from reaching near the court.

The controversy surrounding Khan — a figure who inspires both vehement loyalty and furious opposition — threatens to open a deeper vein of turmoil in a country that has seen multiple military takeovers and bouts of violence. The unrest has echoed that which followed the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during an election rally. Her supporters at the time, outraged by her killing, rampaged for days across Pakistan.

Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician, was removed as prime minister last year by a no-confidence vote in Parliament and now leads the opposition. He faces more than 100 legal cases, most involving allegations that he incited violence and threatened police and government officials.

He also faces at least three graft cases, including accusations from the National Accountability Bureau that he accepted millions of dollars worth of property in exchange for providing benefits to a real estate tycoon. A new terrorism charge was filed against him on Thursday for allegedly inciting his followers to violence after his arrest.

Following the Supreme Court’s release order Thursday, Khan spent the night at a government guest house in Islamabad, where he met with family members and friends.

Pakistan’s president, Arif Alvi, also had a meeting with him. Alvi has been trying to defuse tension between Khan and Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government to avoid an escalation.

Speaking at a special Cabinet meeting Friday to discuss the developments, Sharif criticized the Supreme Court ruling, saying there was a “genuine corruption case” against Khan, “but the judiciary has become a stone wall protecting him.”

As Sharif’s government contends with the political turmoil amid a worsening economic crisis, it is also dealing with militant attacks. According to Pakistan’s military, two soldiers were killed and three were wounded Friday when insurgents attacked a security post in the town of Muslim Bagh in southwestern Baluchistan province. It said two insurgents were also killed in the exchange of fire.