The Pakistani police have charged Imran Khan under anti-terror law, authorities said on Monday, days after the former prime minister attacked the police and a judicial officer at a huge rally in the capital, Islamabad.
The police case comes a day after the country’s top media regulatory body imposed a ban on Khan’s speeches for “spreading hate speech” against “state institutions and officers”, escalating political tensions in the country.
He has been holding mass rallies across the country seeking to return to office since he was removed from power in April in a no-confidence motion. The cricketer-turned-politician has alleged his removal was a result of a “foreign conspiracy”.
In his speech on Saturday, Khan promised to sue police officers and a female judge as he alleged that a close aide had been tortured after his arrest.
He doubled down on his criticism of state institutions at another rally on Sunday, saying the police acted under pressure from “neutrals”, a common euphemism for Pakistan’s military establishment.
“On May 25 when police perpetrated violence against us, I was told by insiders that police acted under orders by above, which means they were under pressure by the neutrals to thrash PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf] workers,” he said at the rally in Rawalpindi.
“Are the neutrals really neutral?” he asked.
Khan could face several years in prison for the new charges, which accuse him of threatening police officers and the judge. However, he has not been arrested on other lesser charges against him during his recent campaigning against the government.
Khan has been granted protective bail until Thursday when he is likely to appear before an anti-terrorism court in capital Islamabad.
Under Pakistan’s legal system, the police usually file a first information report (FIR) about the charges against an accused to a magistrate judge, who allows the investigation to move forward. Typically, police then arrest and question the accused.
The report against Khan includes testimony from Judge Ali Javed, who described being at the Islamabad rally and hearing Khan criticise the inspector general of Pakistan’s police and another judge.
Khan reportedly said: “You also get ready for it, we will also take action against you. All of you must be ashamed.”
Khan’s PTI party posted videos online showing supporters surrounding his home apparently to stop police from reaching it. Hundreds remained there early on Monday.
“If Imran Khan is arrested … we will take over Islamabad with people’s power,” a former minister in his cabinet, Ali Amin Gandapur, threatened on Twitter, as some party leaders urged supporters to prepare for mass mobilisation.
The return of street violence?
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Islamabad, said the return of street violence was a strong possibility.
“If Imran Khan gives the call to his supporters to come out in large numbers, there is fear that they [the government] will clamp down hard, which will definitely evoke a reaction from the people,” Hyder said. “People across the country are angry.”
The Pakistani judiciary also has a history of politicisation and taking sides in power struggles between the military, the civilian government and opposition politicians, according to the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Freedom House.
Khan came to power in 2018, promising to break the pattern of family rule in Pakistan. His opponents contend he was elected with help from the powerful military, which has ruled the country for half of its 75-year history.
The opposition alliance had accused him of economic mismanagement amid soaring inflation and sliding value of rupee before it moved the no-confidence vote in April.
The former prime minister has alleged he was deposed in a US-led plot, dubbing the succeeding government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif as an “imported government”. But he has not provided proof in support of his allegations.
Washington and Sharif have denied the allegations.
Khan has been carrying out a series of mass rallies across the country, trying to pressure Sharif’s government.
Al Jazeera’s Hyder said the current situation could lead to a dangerous escalation that could further complicate Pakistan’s economic woes and bring its politics to a virtual standstill.
“The people of Pakistan want a fresh election. They do not recognise this 13-party coalition, which has been unable to deliver. Inflation is at an all-time high. Prices of fuel and electricity have also shot up. There is a lot of unease.”
On Sunday, global internet monitor NetBlocks said internet services in the country blocked access to YouTube after Khan broadcast a live speech on the platform despite a ban by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.
Police arrested Khan’s political aide Shahbaz Gill earlier this month after he appeared on the private television channel ARY TV and urged soldiers and officers to refuse to obey “illegal orders” from the military leadership. Gill was charged with treason, which under Pakistani law carries the death penalty. ARY also remains off-air in Pakistan following the broadcast.
Khan accused police of abusing Gill in custody. Police say Gill suffers from asthma and has not been abused in detention.