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Riazat Butt, Associated Press
Riazat Butt, Associated Press
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ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan is witnessing a wave of violence following the arrest of popular opposition leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan on corruption charges. The level of unrest has not been seen since 2007, when another former premier — Benazir Bhutto — was assassinated during an election campaign.
READ MORE: Pakistani police storm home of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, arrest 61 supporters
Footage of Khan being dragged from court sparked outrage among his supporters. Angry protesters torched buildings and vehicles. Authorities have deployed troops in an attempt to contain the clashes. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif vowed a tough response to the attacks. Khan is in custody at a police compound in the capital, Islamabad, undergoing questioning.
Since Khan’s arrest on Tuesday, at least eight people have died and dozens have been wounded in clashes between his supporters and police. Protesters have burned building and vehicles to the ground. Others blocked roads and set fire to police checkpoints and military facilities. Schools and colleges remain closed in Khan’s regional strongholds. More than 2,000 people have been arrested so far.
Pakistan has a history of military takeovers, political upheaval and social unrest. Khan is the seventh prime minister to be arrested since 1977. Military property, including the home of a top commander, has been destroyed. The current turmoil comes as the already embattled country struggles with a dire economic situation, a spike in militancy, and the impact of last year’s catastrophic floods. This grimness is unlikely to be addressed or resolved soon, further straining living conditions and security for the 220-million population.
Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April 2022 but still has a massive grassroots following, with the power to quickly mobilize thousands of supporters to the streets and stir up a frenzy with his anti-establishment rhetoric. Last November, he was shot in the leg at a rally. He claims both incidents are evidence of a conspiracy against him, a compelling narrative for his followers who believe he was unjustly ousted and is being targeted by the government and the military.
Khan has at least 100 criminal cases filed against him by various government agencies. In some ways his detention was just a matter of time. He was in court on Tuesday for one set of corruption charges but was arrested for another. What’s striking about his detention is how dramatic it was — the anti-graft agency whose agents detained him has not explained why he was taken so publicly, dragged out of court and shoved into an armored vehicle.
The 70-year-old Khan has repeatedly denied all allegations against him.
The government has stepped up security, banned gatherings — and in some places shut down social media. But Khan’s supporters are determined to see him freed and returned to power, saying he is their red line. A crackdown on party activists and leaders will not make them back down. Though he may ultimately be released, while he is in detention, the standoff between his supporters and authorities continues — all the while deepening Pakistan’s divisions.
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