Pakistan’s government has called on the army to help end deadly unrest following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, warning protesters against any further attacks on state installations.
At least five people died in the violence after Khan – Pakistan’s most popular political leader according to polls – was arrested on a land fraud case on Tuesday, prompting supporters to attack of military buildings and ransacking the residence of a top army general in the eastern city of Lahore.
Other state buildings and properties were attacked and set on fire by protesters, and the government said on Wednesday it had approved requests from two of Pakistan’s four provinces – Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the same stronghold of Khan – and the federal capital Islamabad to deploy troops. to restore order.
Earlier, the army issued a statement saying it appeared to contain the initial violence but any further attacks on the military or law enforcement agencies, state installations and assets “will be met with severe retaliation”.
It has promised stern action against those who seek to push Pakistan towards a “civil war.” It called the organized attack on its installations a “dark chapter” in the country’s political history.
Khan was held at the police guest house
As street protests erupted, a Pakistani court remanded Khan, 70, in 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 currently 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 an unrelated fraud case.
The accusation follows a decision by Pakistan’s Election Commission in October last year that found Khan guilty of illegally selling state gifts between 2018 and 2022, and as a result he was barred from hold public office until the next election in November. He denies any wrongdoing.
Mohsin Shahnawaz Ranjha, a lawmaker from the governing coalition who is a plaintiff in the case against Khan over state gifts, accused him of putting “the peace of the country at risk”.
Arrest is ‘kidnapping and completely illegal’
Mobile data services were shut down for a second day on Wednesday as street protests continued, with federal ministers accusing Khan’s supporters of setting fire to several buildings and vehicles.
Police say they have arrested more than 1,400 protesters over the violence in Punjab’s Khan province.
Murad Saeed, a senior leader of Khan’s party, said the manner of the former prime minister’s arrest was “kidnapping and completely illegal”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Saeed said the response from the public to Khan’s arrest shows the popularity of the former prime minister.
Saeed denied that party workers were behind the violent protests and riots that damaged many public and private properties, including military installations, across the country.
“You have seen that PTI has been holding public rallies and demonstrations since last one year after our government was removed. Our supporters know exactly which place we have gathered to hold our protests, but this time among us there are some elements who do not belong to the party,” said Saeed.
Asad Umar, the secretary general of Khan’s party, and Fawad Chaudhry, one of Khan’s aides were also arrested. PTI said Fawad’s arrest was made despite the Islamabad High Court granting him protective bail till May 12.
“He was arrested despite being on bail, granted to him by the Islamabad High Court which specifically barred his arrest until May 12,” Faisal Fareed Chaudhry, Fawad’s brother and a PTI lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
More than 145 police officers were injured in clashes with protesters, police said 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 down his campaign against his removal even though he was injured in a November attack on his convoy as he led a protest march in Islamabad calling for snap general elections.
The corruption charges are two of more than 100 registered against Khan after he left office.
“Such scenes have never been seen by the people of Pakistan,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday. “Even the patients were taken out of the ambulances and the ambulances were set on fire.”
Calling the attacks “unforgivable,” he warned that those involved in the violence would be given exemplary punishment.
Sharif said that Khan was arrested for his involvement in corruption, and that there was evidence available to support these charges.
‘Perfect storm in Pakistan today’
Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the UN, said the situation in the country was dire.
“This is a very serious situation. This is perhaps the worst political and constitutional crisis Pakistan has faced in many, many decades. It comes on the back of a severe economic crisis. What you have is a perfect storm in Pakistan today,” Lodhi told Al Jazeera from the capital Islamabad.
“I think the government is struggling to maintain law and order. The protesters are turning violent and it’s not as if the unrest has started to go away in any way.
Imran Shafique, a lawyer and former prosecutor at Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), said Khan could be kept in custody for a maximum of 14 days.
“The court ordered an eight-day remand for him [Khan]and it can be extended for another six days,” Shafique told Al Jazeera.
Shafique explained that former Prime Minister Khan will be able to get bail when his remand period is over, because he has been arrested.
Shafique said there are several scenarios where Khan could face the possibility of arrest. The first, where he was taken, did not appear in court despite being issued notices.
“The second scenario is if he is accused of tampering with evidence, which is unlikely because all the evidence is with NAB and the third is there is fear that Khan will flee the country,” he said.
“So, it doesn’t seem like it took him too long to be questioned and arrested.”
Additional reporting by Abid Hussain and Hafsa Adil.