Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for “freedom” protests across the country after his dramatic arrest on Tuesday sparked deadly protests across the South Asian nation.
“Freedom does not come easily. You have to seize it. You have to sacrifice for it,” said the 70-year-old leader in a speech broadcast on YouTube last Saturday night a day after he was released following the intervention of the Supreme Court. .
He called on supporters to hold protests “at the end of your streets and villages” across the country on Sunday night for an hour starting at 5:30pm (12:30 GMT).
Khan, who has been slapped with several charges since he was ousted from power in April, was out on bail on Friday after his imprisonment in a corruption case was declared unconstitutional by a high court. Several top leaders of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party remain under arrest.
Khan’s arrest, which his supporters called “kidnapping”, shocked the country, sparking street protests. Calling for his release, supporters blocked roads and damaged military property, which they blamed for Khan’s removal.
Sunday morning was quiet after several days of violence and political unrest. Khan remained steadfast in his demand for snap elections. He has emerged as the country’s most popular leader and has held several rallies since his ouster to call for national elections.
Khan survived an assassination attempt last year during one of his major rallies where he blamed the country’s powerful army.
“The actions of the army chief have damaged our military. It is because of him, not because of me,” Khan said from his home in Lahore. On Friday, he told reporters that “one person, the army chief” was behind his arrest.
Pakistan’s military has staged three coups since the country was founded in 1947. It has ruled the country directly for more than three decades and enjoys considerable influence in local politics.
The military has historically intervened, citing economic or political instability in the country. However, despite widespread fears about another intervention in months of unrest, the military said it stood by the democratic process.
“The senior leadership of the army, the chief of staff of the army, has put full trust in democracy. There is no question of martial law,” chief military spokesman Major-General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry told Geo News channel on Saturday.
Thousands were arrested
Meanwhile, Khan has distanced himself from attacks against military installations in protests, denied his party workers were involved and called for an independent investigation into the violence.
The army, which has denied the accusations made by Khan, on Saturday warned against attempts to create “false perceptions” against the institution.
At least nine people died in last week’s riots, police and hospitals said. An official casualty figure has not yet been announced.
Hundreds of police officers were injured and more than 4,000 people were detained, mostly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, according to authorities.
At least 10 senior PTI leaders, including a former foreign minister, have been arrested since the protests began, one of Khan’s lawyers said.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, the head of a shaky coalition, on Saturday warned that those involved in “facilitating, abetting and perpetrating” the violence must be arrested within 72 hours.
Major social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter remain inaccessible. The Ministry of Interior ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to suspend mobile internet services across the country, and blocked access to three social media networks, on Tuesday night.
Mobile data services were partially restored across the country on Saturday.
The country’s political turmoil has been simmering for months, with Khan trying to destroy the coalition government by dissolving the two provincial parliaments he controls and pushing for early elections.
Khan is a cricket star-turned-politician who was removed as prime minister in April 2022 in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. He blamed the role of the army in his dismissal.