Pakistan deploys troops to halt unrest after ex-Prime Minister Khan is ordered held on new charges
ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s government called out the military Wednesday in areas roiled by deadly violence following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was dragged from a courtroom and ordered held for another eight days on new corruption charges that outraged his supporters and deepened the country’s political turmoil.
In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said the unrest by Khan's supporters “damaged sensitive public and private property," forcing him to deploy the military in the capital of Islamabad, the most populous province of Punjab and in volatile regions of the northwest.
After Khan was arrested Tuesday, crowds in Islamabad and other major cities blocked roads, clashed with police, and set fire to police checkpoints and military facilities in violence that left six people dead and hundreds arrested. On Wednesday, protesters stormed a radio station in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
“Such scenes were never seen by the people of Pakistan,” Sharif said, following a Cabinet meeting. "Even patients were taken out of ambulances and ambulances were set on fire.”
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.
Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote last year by Sharif, is being held at a police compound in Islamabad. In a temporary court there, a judge ordered the 70-year-old politician detained for at least another eight days, raising the prospect of more unrest.
The military also weighed in with a strongly worded statement, vowing stern action against those seeking to push Pakistan toward a “civil war.” It called the organized attacks on its installations a “black chapter” in the country’s political history.
“What the eternal enemy of the country could not do for 75 years, this group, wearing a political cloak, in the lust for power, has done it,” the statement said, adding that troops had exercised restraint but they will respond to further attacks, and those involved will bear the responsibility.
It said “strict action” would be taken against those who planned or took part in attacks on military sites. It did not directly name Khan in its statement.
Khan's dramatic arrest Tuesday — he was pulled from a hearing in Islamabad's High Court on one set of charges, only to be arrested on another set — was the latest confrontation to roil Pakistan. He is the seventh former prime minister to be arrested in the country, which has also seen interventions by the powerful military over the years. The move comes at a time of economic crisis, when the cash-strapped nation is trying to avoid a default.
Khan's Islamabad appearance was on multiple graft charges brought by police. As he arrived, the courtroom was stormed by dozens of agents from the anti-corruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau, backed by paramilitary troops. They broke windows after Khan’s guards refused to open the door.
The former cricket star has denounced the cases against him, which include corruption and terrorism charges, as a politically motivated plot by Sharif, his successor, to keep him from returning to power in elections to be held later this year.
Also on Wednesday, police arrested Fawad Chaudhry, Khan's deputy and vice president of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad. Chaudhry, an outspoken government critic, had insisted that he had been granted legal protection from arrest, and the police did not specify the charges.
The party has appealed for calm, but the country was on high alert. Police were deployed in force, and they placed shipping containers on a road leading to the sprawling police compound in Islamabad where Khan was held. Despite it, demonstrators Wednesday evening attacked and burned down the office of a senior police officer responsible for the security of the police facilities, including the one where Khan is being held.
His supporters in Peshawar raided a building housing Radio Pakistan, damaging equipment and setting it ablaze, said police official Naeem Khan. Some employees were trapped inside, he said, and police sought to restore order.
In eastern Punjab province, the local government asked the army to step in after authorities said 157 police were injured in clashes with protesters.
Police arrested 945 Khan supporters in eastern Punjab province alone since Tuesday, including Asad Umar and Sarfraz Cheema, two senior leaders of his party.
Pakistan’s GEO television broadcast video of Khan's appearance before a judge in the police compound, showing him seated in a chair, holding documents. He appeared calm but tired.
In the new charges, Khan was accused of accepting millions of dollars worth of property in exchange for providing benefits to a real estate tycoon. The National Accountability Bureau asked to hold him for 14 days, but the tribunal granted eight days.
Khan was finally indicted Wednesday in the original graft case for which he appeared at the Islamabad court on Tuesday, pleading not guilty. In that case, he faced multiple graft charges brought by Islamabad police.
Khan’s lawyers have challenged the Islamabad arrest and are considering taking it to the country’s Supreme Court.
The National Accountability Bureau has detained and investigated former officials, including former prime ministers, politicians and retired military officers. But some view it as a tool used by those in power, especially the military, to crack down on political opponents. When Khan was in power, his government arrested Shahbaz Sharif, then the opposition leader, through the bureau. Sharif faced multiple corruption cases when he ousted Khan, and the charges were later dropped for lack of evidence.
Mobs angered by the dramatic arrest set fire to the residence of a top army general in the eastern city of Lahore, and supporters attacked the military’s headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi near Islamabad. They did not reach the main building housing the offices of army chief Gen. Asim Munir.
Demonstrators also tried to reach the prime minister's residence in Lahore, but were stopped by police. Still others attacked troop vehicles, hitting armed soldiers with sticks.
By morning, police in Lahore said about 2,000 protesters still surrounded the fire-damaged residence of Lt. Gen. Salman Fayyaz Ghani, a top regional commander. They chanted, “Khan is our red line and you have crossed it.” Ghani and his family were moved to a safer place Tuesday.
The unrest comes as cash-strapped Pakistan is struggling to avoid a default amid stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund for the revival of a bailout. The rupee traded Wednesday at a record 290 to the dollar amid a weekly inflation rate of at least 46%, also a record.
“Political stability is linked to economic stability and I don't see any sign of revival of the economy,” said Shahid Hasan, a former adviser to Pakistan on economic affairs. He said political leaders should set aside their egos and “sit together and think about Pakistan, which is on the verge of a default.”
Amid the violence, Pakistan’s telecommunication authority blocked social media, including Twitter. The government also suspended internet service in Islamabad and other cities. Classes at some private schools were canceled Wednesday, and several social media sites remained suspended.
Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar and Babar Dogar in Lahore, Pakistan, contributed.
The story has been corrected to show that Imran Khan is 70 years old, not 71.
Munir Ahmed And Riazat Butt, The Associated Press