Police in Pakistan have arrested hundreds of supporters of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan for violence after his arrest on corruption charges, authorities said on Wednesday, deepening a political crisis in the nuclear-armed country.
Tuesday’s arrest of the former cricket hero, and Pakistan’s most popular politician according to opinion polls, came at a precarious time for the country that is facing a shortage of foreign exchange and a months-long delay of an IMF bailout.
Mobile data services were shut for a second day while Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were disrupted, as security forces tried to restore order after violence killed one person late on Tuesday.
The government said supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had attacked important state buildings and damaged private and public vehicles. Police said 945 of his supporters had been arrested in Punjab province after 25 police vehicles and more than 14 government buildings were set on fire.
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“This can’t be tolerated. The law will take its course,” Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal said at a news conference. “These violent attacks were not the outcome of any public outpouring. They were planned by the PTI rank and file.”
Authorities in three of Pakistan’s four provinces have imposed an emergency order banning all gatherings after Khan’s supporters clashed with police.
Khan, 70, was arrested from the Islamabad High Court by Pakistan’s anti-corruption agency. Police said a court hearing would take place at the police guest house where he was being held in the Islamabad police lines area.
PTI has called for supporters to gather in the capital and for a “shutdown” across the country of 220 million.
His arrest came a day after the powerful military rebuked him for repeatedly accusing a senior military officer of trying to engineer his assassination and the former armed forces chief of being behind his removal from power last year.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said in an editorial that “the nature and locus of the protests that broke out following Mr Khan’s arrest yesterday signal that public anger is also directed at the military”.
Khan was due to appear for two hearings on Wednesday, Geo News reported, including for a corruption case related to property and another case that alleges Khan unlawfully sold state gifts during his 2018-22 tenure as premier. Khan has denied wrongdoing.
The Pakistani rupee fell 1.3% to a record-low of 288.5 against the U.S. dollar on Wednesday, while the 100-index of the Pakistan Stock Exchange dropped 0.7% in early trading before recouping its losses.
An International Monetary Fund bailout package for Pakistan has been delayed for months even though its foreign exchange reserves are barely enough to cover a month’s imports.
Supreme Court challenge
PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the party’s senior leadership was in Islamabad to meet Khan and would approach the Supreme Court to challenge an Islamabad High Court order that deemed Khan’s arrest legal.
“We continue to call PTI family workers, supporters and the people of Pakistan onto the streets for peaceful protest against this unconstitutional behaviour,” Qureshi wrote on Twitter.
The protests have disrupted business in several cities. In Peshawar, chicken seller Malagul Khan said his shop and others were destroyed in the clashes.
Raja Imran, 25, also a Peshawar resident, said, “There is total chaos across the country ... There are exams going on and school children will suffer”.
Khan was ousted as prime minister in April 2022 in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. He has not slowed his campaign against the ouster even though he was wounded in a November attack on his convoy as he led a protest march to Islamabad calling for snap general elections.
The corruption case is one of more than 100 registered against Khan since his ouster after four years in power. In most of the cases, Khan faces being barred from holding public office if convicted, with a national election scheduled for November.
“Imran Khan will have to face the law and if he is cleared he will be contesting elections and if he is found guilty he will have to face the consequences,” Iqbal, the minister, said.