Pakistani police failed to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan after two days of clashes between Khan supporters from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and police. On Wednesday afternoon, a court in Lahore ordered the immediate halt of the operation to arrest Khan until 10 a.m. on Thursday.
Khan is due in court in Islamabad on March 18 for a hearing on a corruption case over the alleged misuse of his office to sell state gifts; he has repeatedly skipped such hearings.
After a non-bailable arrest warrant for Khan was issued by a court in Islamabad, thousands of workers from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) came out on the streets of Lahore and participated in demonstrations against the provincial caretaker government.
The protesters surrounded Khan's residence in the Zaman Park neighborhood of Lahore and have not allowed police officials to come near as they put up a strong resistance to the law enforcement effort.
The PTI workers have been subject to heavy tear gas shelling, a baton charge, and water cannon attacks.
Several tear gas shells also were fired directly at Khan’s residence, which landed inside the premises and on the roof of his house.
Dozens of people were wounded during violent clashes between police and Khan supporters outside his residence, as police tried to arrest the PTI chairman on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Dr. Mukhtar Ahmed Awan, medical superintendent of Services Hospital in Lahore, told The Media Line that 32 people injured in the clashes between police and demonstrators were brought to Services Hospital, including 30 policemen and two civilians.
Due to the tense situation around the Zaman Park neighborhood, hospitals in Lahore are operating on emergency status.
Police advanced early on Wednesday morning from three sides toward Zaman Park, but were forced to retreat after severe stone pelting by PTI workers.
For the past few weeks, the Khan-led PTI workers have been arriving in the Zaman Park area from different parts of the country, but the situation was different on Tuesday afternoon as the Islamabad police team along with Lahore police headed to Zaman Park to arrest Khan.
Apart from the main roads of Lahore, additional police forces have been deployed on all routes leading to Khan's residence, while traffic has been blocked with barriers, but despite all these restrictions the protesters managed to reach Zaman Park to protect Khan from arrest.
PTI workers have camped out at the entrance to the neighborhood and to Khan’s residence as they chanted slogans against the police and the coalition government.
There situation outside Khan’s residential compound remained tense as police tried to force their way inside.
A rescue paramedic worker told The Media Line that his team rushed some two dozen policemen to the hospital due to the clashes.
Amir Mir, information minister for the caretaker provincial government, told The Media Line that the Pakistan Rangers civil armored forces had been called out “because of deteriorating law and order in Lahore and to assist police.”
Mir said told The Media Line that “PTI workers used sticks and stones indiscriminately from the front. In response, the police tried to disperse them.”
Khan is facing allegations that he had sold state gifts while in power; meanwhile, the former prime minister calls the case politically motivated.
As tear gas shelling was taking place outside his house, Khan told Al Jazeera TV that the attempt to arrest him “is totally illegal and politically motivated. The government wants to remove me from the electoral contest because they are petrified by the popularity of my party.”
“According to the law, I have protected bail until the 18th [of March]. So, four days early the police arrived with an arrest warrant, which is illegal,” he said.
National elections are due to be held in Pakistan in October, though Khan has been calling for early elections.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Khan wrote: “My house has been under heavy attack since yesterday afternoon. The latest attack by the Rangers pitted the largest political party against the army. Rangers firing straight into unarmed citizens at Zaman Park as if they are attacking an enemy force on the battlefield.”
The police claim that the water cannon was set on fire by PTI workers who sprinkled petrol on it, and that a water supply tanker also was set on fire.
The burning water supply tanker can be seen in videos posted from the scene.
On Monday, a district and session court in Islamabad ordered the police to arrest Khan in the Toshakhana (state depository) case after he failed appear in court.
Prior to this, the Islamabad High Court suspended the non-bailable arrest warrant for Khan issued by the local court.
During Monday’s hearing, Khan’s lawyer filed an exemption plea citing security threats to the former prime minister, who again failed to appear before the court.
Rejecting Khan's exemption plea, the court ordered the federal police to arrest the former premier and present him before the court on March 18.
In a video message late Tuesday night, Khan said that the police plan to arrest him and take him to Sector F-8 court, where there have been two suicide bomb attacks and there are still serious security concerns.
Khan urged the party workers and supporters to continue the struggle for “real freedom” even if he is arrested or killed. “They think when Imran Khan is in jail, the nation will sleep. You must prove them wrong. You have to prove that this nation can struggle without Imran Khan,” he said in his message.
“The nation will have to prove that we are a living nation,” he said, adding that the nation would never accept the “worst slavery of thieves.’’
Meanwhile, country-wide protests erupted over the arrest attempts and clashes outside the Khan residence in Lahore.
PTI workers are protesting in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi and Peshawar after Khan in a video message asked his followers to “come out.”
Shah Mahmood Qureshi, PTI senior leader and a Pakistani former foreign minister, told The Media Line that “to solve the issues, we are ready to find a way through mutual negotiation, the situation should not be worsened.”
“We want peace, we don't want bloodshed,” he added.
“Unwarranted baton charges on political workers are unnecessary and unjustified. The police should stop using chemical water. Our party and its leadership resorted to the courts. We have filed legal proceedings, and Imran Khan has been granted a protective bail,” he said.
Musarrat Jamshed Cheema, a PTI leader from Punjab, said that the arrest of Khan is akin to a plot to murder him.
“The arrest of Imran Khan is a well-thought-out conspiracy. They want to bring Khan into a death trap. This is not an arrest but a murder plot,” Cheema told The Media Line.
Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi expressed his regret over the clashes between PTI workers and police outside Zaman Park and condemned the steps taken to arrest Khan.
He tweeted on Tuesday: “I am deeply saddened by today’s events. Unhealthy revenge politics. Poor priorities of [the] government of a country that should focus on [the] economic misery of the people. Are we destroying [the] political landscape?”
Alvi also tweeted that he is “equally concerned about Imran Khan's safety, honor and dignity like that of all politicians.”
Former US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, also expressed concern about the chaos in Pakistan. He tweeted that “The sequential cannibalizing of its leaders through jailing, execution, assassination, etc. is the wrong path. Arresting Imran Khan will only deepen the crisis.”
Khalilzad also tweeted: “Pakistan faces a triple crisis: political, economic and security. Despite great potential, it is underperforming and falling far behind its archrival, India. It is time for serious soul-searching, bold thinking and strategizing.”
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington and a leading expert on Pakistan, told The Media Line that: “Every effort Pakistan’s government makes to weaken Imran Khan will only end up making him stronger. Its dysfunctional and repressive policies play to his strengths as a populist and enable him to channel public outrage to his advantage. The numbers in Khan’s huge crowds do not lie.”
Kugelman told The Media Line that “Khan's fate could change in a hurry, but for now he's pushing all the right buttons with a lot of help from a government that keeps shooting itself in the foot with its combination of indecisiveness and brutality.”
Pakistan has been dealing with political and economic turmoil since Khan was removed from power in April 2022 through a legislative vote on a no-confidence motion.
Since leaving office, the charming cricket legend-turned-politician has demonstrated his popularity with the masses by holding dozens of rallies across the country.