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Pakistan police ordered to halt arrest of Imran Khan until Thursday after clashes

Riot police fire tear gas shells toward supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan gathered near Khan's house to prevent officers from arresting him, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Wednesday. The police withdrew later in the day.
Arif Ali
/
AFP via Getty Images
Riot police fire tear gas shells toward supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan gathered near Khan's house to prevent officers from arresting him, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Wednesday. The police withdrew later in the day.

Updated March 15, 2023 at 2:35 PM ET

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani police withdrew from around the residence of former Prime Minister Imran Khan after nearly 24 hours of clashes with his supporters, as officers tried to seek his arrest over corruption charges. The crisis comes as Pakistan stands on the brink of economic default.

Khan's supporters hurled rocks and used sticks against the officers, at one point even lobbing a firebomb, as they formed a shield around Khan's home in a leafy upscale suburb of the Pakistani city of Lahore. "These are workers that are actually battling the police," says Arifa Noor, a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. The police, she says, "did not estimate this kind of resistance."

As the fighting raged, Khan went onto Twitter saying, "If something happens — if I'm jailed or if they kill me — it's up to you to carry on fighting."

The confrontation raged until Wednesday afternoon, when police abruptly withdrew. The information minister of Punjab province, where Lahore is located, said the high court there had ordered the arrest operation be held off until Thursday morning.

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview with AFP at his residence in Lahore on Wednesday, while displaying tear gas shells fired by riot police during clashes with hundreds of his supporters gathered at his residence to prevent his arrest.
Aamir Qureshi / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks during an interview with AFP at his residence in Lahore on Wednesday, while displaying tear gas shells fired by riot police during clashes with hundreds of his supporters gathered at his residence to prevent his arrest.

Pakistan's military is a major power broker

But Khan has been fighting back, and for nearly a year, his supporters have unleashed jaw-dropping amounts of vitriol against Bajwa. The language has been startling in a country where the institution, let alone the army chief, was only spoken about critically in hushed tones because it was so widely feared.

Khan hinted at the army's role in his short Twitter speech on Tuesday night, when he said, "You must never accept the tyranny of these thieves, especially the one man who is making decisions for the country."

Khan's claims about the army's role in his demise are not controversial, says Noor, the columnist. "I think everybody recognizes that the military is a is a big player in the politics of Pakistan," she says. But prior to Khan's removal from office, Noor says the military's role was largely accepted by Pakistanis — particularly in the Punjab, the country's most populous province and a bastion of recruitment for the military. "That is what has changed."

"Now you see a lot of people questioning the role of the military, and this should be a concern to the military itself ... because legitimacy, at the end of the day, is about perception," Noor says. "People are now questioning their role," she says of the army. "They think it is harmful."

Imran Khan's falling out with military is remarkable

Khan's falling out with the army is a stunning turn for a man who was widely seen as groomed by the same institution for the job of prime minister, Mosharraf Zaidi, a newspaper columnist and director of Tabadlab, a policy think tank in the Pakistani capital.

It reflects the fate of his Khan's chief nemesis, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was groomed into power by the military before falling out with the institution.

"Imran Khan is the most recent of essentially a long line of elected civilian leaders who were once incubated and curated as leaders by the military establishment itself. But once they reach the prime minister's office, once they have tasted power, and once they learn how to manipulate the public discourse to their favor, the understudies, or the proxies, for the military become larger than the military," Zaidi says.

In that way, the clashes that raged this week around Zaman Park, as Khan's residence is locally known, were not just between supporters and police, Zaidi says. "This is a clash between a military that wants to cut Imran Khan down to size, and an Imran Khan that believes that it is a role for civilians and is specifically for Imran Khan to cut the military down to size," he says.

The political crisis comes as Pakistan inches toward default, with less than $3 billion in its foreign reserves. As the economy unravels, millions face the risk of starvation, and thousands are losing their jobs.

The International Monetary Fund has so far refused to release a tranche of a bailout that would pave the way for Pakistan to obtain more foreign funds, in part because it appears not to trust the current finance minister's ability to carry out reforms, and in part because of political instability.

Zaidi says, ultimately, Pakistan's current tailspin is the military's fault. "It is absolutely fair to blame the military for this crisis," he says. "The reason the people of Pakistan are facing this multifarious crisis," including "a very significant economic crisis," is "because the military does not know how to withdraw from politics, but also insists on remaining engaged in politics."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Abdul Sattar