Pakistan's ex-PM Khan remanded for 8 days amid deadly protests

Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan smash a police vehicle during a protest against the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar, Pakistan, May 10, 2023. [AP Phogto]

Pakistani troops were deployed Thursday in the country’s capital, Islamabad, after days of unrest sparked by the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The federal government formally requested the military's assistance on Wednesday to help restore law and order, leading to troop deployments in Islamabad and the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A special anti-graft court on Wednesday remanded Khan in custody for eight days while another indicted him on separate corruption charges amid nationwide protests and deadly clashes between his supporters and riot police.

Khan appeared before the two tribunals that were set up inside the high-security police headquarters in Islamabad one day after his dramatic arrest and detention by paramilitary troops outside a courtroom elsewhere in the capital.

The 70-year-old opposition leader was arrested Tuesday as he prepared to attend a hearing on the dozens of charges against him, ranging from alleged terrorism and corruption to treason and other criminal offenses.

Khan told judges Wednesday that security forces had physically assaulted him before arresting him and dragging him from the court building, defense attorneys said.

The arrest of the cricket star-turned-popular prime minister has sparked massive and violent protests in Islamabad and other cities by supporters of Khan's political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI.

The clashes with police continued Wednesday, leaving several people dead and many more injured. PTI said dozens of its workers had been killed.

VOA could not independently verify PTI’s claims. Authorities did not discuss the number of casualties.

Police rounded up hundreds of PTI workers, including senior leaders, in a nationwide crackdown.

Protesters, including men and women, directed their rage mainly at the powerful military that the former prime minister persistently accused of orchestrating his ouster from office last year and later instituting "baseless and frivolous" court cases against him.

A large number of Khan supporters gathered outside the military headquarters in Rawalpindi abutting Islamabad, among other army installations, and chanted slogans against the army, something that has not been seen in recent history in Pakistan.

Authorities deployed paramilitary forces to assist police in controlling the situation after protesters on Tuesday stormed the residences of the regional military corps commanders in Lahore, the capital of the country's most populous Punjab, and in Peshawar, the capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

On Wednesday, the military's media wing, in a strongly worded statement, said that attacks on its installations and sloganeering against the institution were "pre-planned" and part of an organized effort. The Inter-Services Public Relations condemned leaders and supporters of the PTI, Pakistan's largest political party, as "miscreants." It warned, without elaborating, of stern action against protesters involved in Tuesday's attacks.

"Any further attacks on the army, including all law enforcement agencies, military and state installations and properties, will trigger a severe retaliation against this (PTI) group that wants to push Pakistan into a civil war," the statement said.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for all parties to refrain from violence and emphasized the need to respect the right to peaceful assembly.

“The secretary-general urges the authorities to respect due process and the rule of law in proceedings brought against former Prime Minister Khan,” said Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. chief.

The Pakistani military has a long history of direct and indirect political intervention, with political parties and independent analysts blaming the institution for the fragility of the country's democracy.

Army generals have staged several coups and arrested politically popular prime ministers on trumped-up treason and other charges, ruling the country for nearly half its 75 years.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, said the ongoing threat to public order in Pakistan could be the biggest in its recent history. He wrote on Twitter that the military "is the target of more public anger than it has been at any time" and ruled out the possibility of a military takeover.

There was almost a complete media blackout of the PTI-led protests on dozens of local news channels in and around Islamabad.

The government's telecommunications authority has suspended internet service in Islamabad and other cities and shut down access to social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Schools across Pakistan were also ordered to close Wednesday.

Khan's arrest came just hours after he added new details to his allegation that a senior general within the Pakistani military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, is plotting to kill him.

Khan made the claims a day after the military warned him against making what it condemned as "fabricated and malicious" allegations.

The PTI chief was injured in an assassination attempt last November while leading an anti-government protest march near Lahore. The attack killed one person, while the PTI chief received bullet wounds in his legs.

Khan accused ISI's Major-General Faisal Naseer of being one of the planners of the assassination attempt, saying the officer continued to plot his killing.

Government officials have said the November assassination attempt was the work of a lone gunman, who is now in custody and confessed in a video controversially leaked to the media.

Embattled Khan was removed from office in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April 2022, a move he rejected as illegal and planned by the now-retired chief of the Pakistani military, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Pakistan is mired in an economic and political crisis, with the Khan-led PTI pressuring Sharif's embattled coalition government to hold early elections.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement that it was “greatly troubled” by the unfolding political crisis and its implications for the rights of ordinary citizens.