Imran Khan's Arrest Furthers His Sense of Political Persecution – TIME

When, on March 26, TIME spoke with Imran Khan from his home in Lahore, the former Pakistani Prime Minister was clear on why the government was refusing to hold snap elections as constitutionally mandated. “What they are hoping is that by that time, I’ll be in jail,” he said.
As for the response of his supporters were he to be detained, Khan was also plain. “They believe that if I’m arrested, they will kill me,” he said, predicting widespread unrest. “No one trusts this government.”
Read More: 5 Takeaways from TIME’s Exclusive Interview With Ex-Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan
On Tuesday, the first part of Khan’s prophecy was borne out. In dramatic footage, he was detained by security forces at the High Court in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, with dozens of anti-corruption officers clad in riot gear swooping on the 70-year-old and bundling him into a jeep before driving away.
“Mr Khan went into the biometric office for the biometrics,” Raja Mateen, a member of Khan’s legal team, told the BBC. “The rangers went there, they broke the windows, they hit Mr Khan on the head with a baton.”
And, indeed, outraged supporters of the former cricket icon have since taken to the streets across the nation of 240 million, with at least one person killed in the city of Quetta. On the streets of Islamabad, hundreds of protesters blocked main highways, while others tore down street signs and sections of overpasses, hurling stones and lighting fires.
In response, Pakistani police implemented emergency anti-demonstration orders in several cities, with water cannons deployed against protesters in Karachi. Mobile data services were suspended as protests grew, with several army buildings torched. Commenting on the crisis, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for adherence to the “rule of law.”
Khan’s arrest marks an escalation that many feared but hoped wouldn’t come to pass. Since his ouster in a no-confidence vote in April 2022, he has held huge rallies demanding the government of Shehbaz Sharif—brother of his longtime nemesis, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—holds elections, which opinion polls say that Khan would be sure to win.
In a bid to force the government’s hand, Khan in January dissolved the provincial governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab, which are both controlled by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and together account for over half of Pakistan’s population. But the government has refused to play ball, citing a lack of money given the country’s dire financial plight, instead insisting that local elections would be held together with national ones due by October to save costs.
Given Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ruled the local elections must go ahead immediately, the continued delay has stoked the PTI’s burning sense of injustice. Following arrests of party officials and repeated raids of Khan’s home, it was already sky high. Khan has been hit by over 140 charges, by his count, including defamation, terrorism, and corruption. He claims all are politically motivated to muzzle him. It was his appearance in court on a corruption charge relating to a land deal that led to his arrest this week.
The trigger appears to be Khan’s repeating during a rally on Saturday of allegations that Gen. Faisal Naseer, chief of Pakistan’s fearsome Inter-Services Intelligence service, or ISI, orchestrated November’s assassination attempt that left Khan nursing three bullet wounds. In response, the military issued an unusually strident statement, saying Khan’s “fabricated and malicious allegations are extremely unfortunate, deplorable and unacceptable.” But Khan repeated the allegation again in a video message posted en route to court. Responding to Khan’s arrest, Shehbaz said on Twitter that his rival’s politics was defined by “blatant lies.”
The fact that Khan was arrested for corruption, rather than defamation or another charge, is likely an attempt to tarnish his virtuous aura, says Samina Yasmeen, director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia. However, “I think it’s going to backfire,“ she adds. “The reality is that he commands a lot of support in Pakistan. It’s coming to the point where, in some quarters, it’s lost all rationality.”
The attacks on Khan’s life and freedom are only ballast to his legend, which is taking on demagogic proportions. On May 6, a local cleric was lynched for blasphemy in Khyber Pakthunkhwa Province for allegedly saying at a PTI rally that “Imran Khan is a truthful person and I respect him like the Prophet.”
In reality, Khan has persistently flip flopped on several issues. After claiming for months that the U.S. was behind his ouster, he later changed his mind, instead blaming former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa. Then, after saying he dissolved the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab assemblies to force national elections, Khan later claimed that he only did so on Bajwa’s suggestion. Not that it ultimately matters.
“Whatever story he comes up with, right or wrong, rational or irrational, people support him,” says Yasmeen. “He has this knack of convincing people that he’s the only honest person in the whole pack.”
Read More: Imran Khan on His Plan to Return to Power
At the least, the bloodshed on the streets does nothing to solve Pakistan’s dire economic woes. Inflation soared in March to 47% year-over-year; over the same period, the rupee has plummeted by 54%. The economy hinges on unlocking a stalled IMF bailout first negotiated while Khan was in office.
Spiraling violence “is not exactly going to help move the needle forward with Islamabad convincing foreign investors, the IMF, and others that this government is ready to focus laserlike on easing its economic crisis,” says Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Much hinges on what happens next. Khan is due to be presented at Police Lines Headquarters in Islamabad on Wednesday. More unrest can be expected as long as Khan is detained, though his release will no doubt further energize his supporters.
“This marks a major escalation in what had been a long and ugly crisis,” says Kugelman. “What transpires in the next 24 to 48 hours will help determine what awaits Pakistan next.”
Write to Charlie Campbell at


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