Pakistan’s Supreme Court Orders Release of Imran Khan

Pakistan’s Supreme Court Orders Release of Imran Khan

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s release from custody on Thursday, offering a major victory for the onetime leader who was arrested this week as part of a corruption inquiry and escalating a political crisis that has engulfed the country.

The court declared that the authorities had unlawfully arrested Mr. Khan, who was in a hearing on Tuesday when he was taken into custody, stressing that security forces must obtain permission before carrying out an arrest on court premises. His lawyers challenged the legality of the arrest on Thursday morning and requested his release.

The court’s decision left open the possibility that Mr. Khan could be rearrested under different circumstances. Still, the ruling was widely considered a political and legal win for Mr. Khan, whose supporters have taken to the streets in droves since his arrest. It also sets up a direct clash between the Supreme Court and Pakistan’s military, which is widely considered to be the driving force behind his arrest, analysts say.

Mr. Khan, the former international cricket star turned populist politician, was arrested in connection with a corruption case involving the transfer of real estate — charges that he denies. His detention set off violent protests across the country as thousands of his supporters came to his defense, attacking military installations and clashing with security forces.

The public’s direct confrontations with Pakistan’s powerful military — which for decades has been an invisible hand wielding power behind the government — were unlike anything the country had experienced in recent memory.

Tensions between Mr. Khan and military leaders had been growing since he was ousted as prime minister in a vote of no confidence in April last year. In recent months, thousands of supporters have attended his political gatherings, where he has called for Pakistan to hold early general elections in which he plans to run. Supporters have also camped outside his home in Lahore, the country’s second-largest city, to effectively serve as his bodyguards.

Mr. Khan is facing dozens of corruption charges, which he and his supporters have characterized as a misuse of the justice system by the government, led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, and the military to keep him out of politics.

Over the past year, Mr. Khan has rallied his supporters around accusations that the military orchestrated his ouster and, most recently, that a senior Pakistani military intelligence general was behind a shooting that wounded him in November.

On Monday, military officials offered a sharp rebuke to those accusations, and the authorities arrested him the next day. Soon after, protesters set aflame and ransacked military buildings across the country — violent scenes that were once considered unimaginable in a nation where few have dared to directly challenge the military.

The military’s media wing released a statement late Wednesday vowing a swift and “severe” response to protesters who had attacked military installations.

“The facilitators, planners and political rioters involved in these activities have been identified and, now, strict action will be taken against them,” the statement read. “No one can be allowed to incite people and take the law into their hands.”

Since the protests began on Tuesday, the authorities have shut off the internet and cellphone networks across most of Pakistan, deployed the army to at least two provinces and arrested more than 3,000 protesters. The authorities also arrested more than a dozen key leaders in Mr. Khan’s political party, including his close aide and former information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, and the party’s vice chairman and general secretary.

More than 150 officers and personnel were also seriously injured in the clashes across Punjab, the country’s most populous province, the police said.

In its ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered Mr. Khan to stay in a police guesthouse overnight, citing security concerns. He is expected to appear at the Islamabad High Court on Friday and seek bail for a number of cases lodged against him — a process that he began on Tuesday but that was interrupted by his arrest.

The ruling is the second major decision from the Supreme Court that contradicted the state. Last month, the court ruled that the authorities’ decision to delay provincial elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces amid deteriorating security and economic conditions was unconstitutional. The ruling was a blow to the government, which had sought to delay the vote until October, when general elections are scheduled to take place.

The decisions have appeared to pit the country’s judiciary against the state and military — tensions that last flared in 2007, when the country’s leader at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, suspended the independent-minded chief justice who proved willing to take up cases legally challenging the state’s use of power. The justice’s suspension and subsequent dismissal caused an uproar across the country and became a national symbol of General Musharraf’s abuse of power, helping to pave the way for his removal from office.

In the wake of the ruling on Thursday, many in Pakistan were waiting anxiously to see how the state would respond. It is possible that Mr. Khan could be rearrested in the coming days in a way that would satisfy the court’s concerns, analysts say. The state may also look to build a case to disqualify him from running in the next general elections.

“It’s quite clear that the civil and military leadership much prefer that Khan not have an opportunity to return to power,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “That suggests that even though the state has been stymied by the Supreme Court, it’s not going to give up.”

Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting.

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