Thousands of supporters of Pakistan’s coalition government Monday gathered outside the country’s Supreme Court demanding the chief justice resign for releasing former prime minister and leading opposition politician Imran Khan.
Buses and vans transported people from around the country to the capital, Islamabad, where they made their way into a high-security zone, housing the top court and other key government buildings. Rally leaders said they would stage a sit-in protest until their demands were met.
The rare agitation underscores tensions between incumbent Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s embattled coalition government and the country’s judiciary.
Last Tuesday, paramilitary soldiers dragged and arrested Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party, the country’s largest, from outside a federal court on corruption charges.
The dramatic arrest of the 70-year-old PTI chief came as he awaited a hearing on the more than 100 legal cases facing him since a parliamentary vote of no-confidence ousted him from office in April 2022. The allegations range from corruption and sedition to terrorism and murder.
But Supreme Court Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial on Thursday ordered Khan’s immediate release, declaring his arrest “unlawful” and in violation of his right to seek justice.
On Friday, the federal court where Khan was taken into custody protected him from arrest until later this month.
The successive judicial rulings drew a rebuke from Sharif and other leaders of his multi-party coalition, known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement, or PDM. They accused the top court of giving “undue reprieve” to Khan.
While protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court, PDM lawmakers and federal ministers in fiery televised speeches in the National Assembly — the lower house of parliament — condemned the chief justice and his rulings in favor of the opposition leader.
Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif called for legal proceedings against the alleged “misconduct” of the chief justice and several co-judges to remove them from office.
The fundamentalist Islamic party, Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam (JUI), a coalition partner, led Monday’s pro-government rally. Its chief, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, has called on students from thousands of JUI-run countrywide madrassas, or religious seminaries, to converge on Islamabad.
“We are here to protest the Supreme Court decision that relieved a criminal. They keep ruling in favor of this one person, Imran Khan,” said Fazle Azeem, a JUI activist at the rally.
Workers of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML-N and those of other partners in the 13-member coalition also joined the rally.
“They give him a blanket immunity. We want him [the chief justice] to make decisions according to the law and the constitution. That’s what we are going to ask him to do,” said Uzma Kardar, a PML-N member.
Television footage showed protesters climbing security gates and forcing their way into the so-called high-security “red zone” without being challenged by security forces, despite a ban in such gatherings in the capital.
Last week, police used tear gas and baton charges and detained hundreds of Khan supporters for breaching the ban as they protested his arrest.
“Meanwhile, these goons are being facilitated by our security agencies to take over the Supreme Court and subvert the Constitution. All citizens be ready for peaceful protests as once the Constitution and SC are destroyed, it is the end of the Pakistan dream,” Khan wrote on Twitter.
He accused the government of arresting around 7,000 PTI workers, including women and most of the senior leadership, in a nationwide crackdown on his party. The arrests were made “without investigation into who was responsible for arson on government buildings or dozens of deaths of unarmed protesters by bullet wounds,” Khan insisted.
The violence reportedly killed at least 10 people. But the government banned coverage of the unrest on local television channels. It suspended mobile internet services and access to social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, until the protest subsided late on Friday.
Internet services and social media platforms in Pakistan have since remained restricted.
Sharif said culprits involved in violent protests would face trials in anti-terrorism courts.
On Monday, Khan appeared before a court in the eastern city of Lahore along with his wife, Bushra Bibi, where the judge granted bail to the first lady until May 23 in the graft case that had led to Khan’s brief arrest last week.
The Sharif government maintains corruption cases against Khan are being investigated and instituted by the independent anti-graft National Accountability Bureau.
Khan rejects all allegations and maintains they are a pretext for Pakistan’s powerful military to block him from returning to power in elections scheduled for the fall and ban his party.
On Friday, the PTI chief directly accused the army chief, General Asim Munir, of being behind his short-lived arrest and the ensuing crackdown on his party. Khan has distanced his supporters from the violence, alleging that arsonists were government infiltrators to help facilitate the effort to ban the PTI. The army denies the charges.
Michael Kugelman, the South Asia Institute director at Washington’s Wilson Center, sees no early end to the crisis gripping Pakistan.
“One reason Pakistan is on such a collision course is that the main confrontation pits a leader who claims to be Pakistan’s last hope and savior against the leader of an institution that claims to be Pakistan’s last hope and savior. This leaves precious little middle ground,” Kugelman wrote on Twitter.
Khan has been holding major rallies nationwide since his ouster to press for fresh elections, calling the no-trust vote against him an illegal act plotted by the now-retired army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. The government has rejected the demands for early elections.
Khan was shot and wounded in an attack last November while leading a pro-election rally. He accused a senior general within the military’s spy agency of planning the assassination bid in collaboration with Sharif and his Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah. Government and military officials reject the charges.