Monday, May 20, 2024

Pakistan army called in to quell unrest following ex-PM’s arrest, death toll rises to 8

The Pakistani army has been called in by the government to help end the deadly unrest in the wake of the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. The government has warned protesters against any further attacks on state installations.

At least eight people were killed and more than 290 were injured in violence after Khan – Pakistan’s most popular political leader according to polls – was arrested in a land fraud case on Tuesday, prompting supporters to storm military buildings and ransack the residence of a top army general in the eastern city of Lahore.

Other state buildings and assets have been attacked and set ablaze by protesters, and the government said on Wednesday that it had approved requests from two of Pakistan’s four provinces – Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, both Khan strongholds – and the federal capital Islamabad to deploy troops to restore order.

Earlier, the army issued a statement saying it had shown restraint during earlier violence but any further assaults on the military or law enforcement agencies, state installations and properties “will be met with severe retaliation”.

It promised stern action against those seeking to push Pakistan towards a “civil war.” It called the organised attacks on its installations a “black chapter” in the country’s political history.

As protests raged on the streets, a Pakistani court turned Khan, 70, over to the custody of Pakistan’s anti-corruption body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), for eight days for further questioning. The former international cricket star is now being held in a police guesthouse in Islamabad.

Another court indicted Khan earlier on Wednesday on charges of selling state gifts during his four years in power, a day after his arrest in the unrelated fraud case.

The indictment followed a decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan in October last year that found Khan guilty of illegally selling state gifts between 2018 and 2022, and as a result barred him from holding public office until the next election due in November. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Mohsin Shahnawaz Ranjha, a lawmaker from the governing coalition who was a plaintiff in the case against Khan on state gifts, accused him of putting the “country’s peace at stake”.

Mobile data services were shut for a second day on Wednesday as street protests continued, with federal ministers accusing Khan’s supporters of torching several buildings and vehicles.

Police announced they had arrested more than 1,400 protesters for violence in Khan’s home province of Punjab.

Murad Saeed, a senior leader of Khan’s party, says the manner in which the former prime minister was arrested was “abduction and entirely illegal”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Saeed stated the response from the public to Khan’s arrest showed the former prime minister’s popularity.

Saeed denied that party workers were behind violent protests and rioting which damaged multiple public and private properties, including military installations, across the country.

“You must have seen that PTI has been conducting public rallies and demonstrations since last one year after our government was removed. Our supporters know exactly which area we gather to conduct our protests, but this time in our midst were some elements who did not belong to the party,” Saeed claimed.

Asad Umar, Khan’s party’s secretary general, and Fawad Chaudhry, one of Khan’s aides have also been arrested on Wednesday.

PTI announced Fawad’s arrest was carried out despite him having been granted protective bail by the Islamabad High Court until May 12.

“He was arrested despite possessing a bail, granted to him by Islamabad High Court which specifically barred his arrest till May 12,” Faisal Fareed Chaudhry, Fawad’s brother and a PTI lawyer, told Al Jazeera.

Also on Thursday, The PTI party alleged Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who served as foreign minister in Khan’s cabinet during his four-year premiership, was arrested overnight.

More than 145 policemen have been injured in clashes with protesters, said the police in a statement.

Khan, a cricket hero-turned-politician, was removed as prime minister in April 2022 in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. He has not slowed his campaign against his removal 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 cases are two of more than 100 registered against Khan after he left office.

“Such scenes were never seen by the people of Pakistan,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif stated following a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

“Even patients were taken out of ambulances and ambulances were set on fire,” he added.

Calling such attacks “unforgivable,” he warned that those involved in violence would be given exemplary punishment.

Sharif said Khan was arrested because of his involvement in corruption, and that there was evidence available to back up these charges.

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