ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistani police have filed a terrorism charge against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, authorities said Monday, escalating political tensions in the country as the deposed prime minister holds mass rallies to return to office.
The indictment followed a speech Khan delivered Saturday in Islamabad in which he vowed to indict police officers and a female judge and alleged that a close associate had been tortured after his arrest.
Khan himself has not spoken publicly about the latest charges against him. However, a court in Islamabad issued a so-called “protective bail” for Khan for the next three days, preventing police from arresting him on the charges, said Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a senior leader in his opposition party Tehreek-e-Insaf. .
Hundreds of Tehreek-e-Insaf members stood in front of Khan’s house on Monday to show their support as the former prime minister gathered inside. The party has warned it will hold nationwide rallies if Khan is arrested as he tries to quash the charges in court.
“We will take over Islamabad and my message to the police is… don’t be part of this political war anymore,” warned Ali Amin Khan Gandapur, a former minister under Khan.
According to the Pakistani legal system, the police submit a so-called first intelligence report on charges against a suspect to a magistrate, who allows the investigation to continue. Usually, the police arrest and interrogate the suspect.
The report against Khan includes testimony from magistrate judge Ali Javed, who described being at the demonstration in Islamabad on Saturday and hearing Khan criticize the inspector general of the Pakistani police and another judge. Khan further reportedly said: “Get ready too, we will take action against you too. You should all be ashamed.”
Khan could face several years in prison for the new charges, which accuse him of threatening police officers and the judge under Pakistan’s 1997 counter-terrorism law, which gave police more powers amid sectarian violence in the country.
But 25 years later, critics say the law helps security forces evade constitutional protections for suspects, while governments also used the law for political ends. Other former Pakistani politicians, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former President General Pervez Musharraf, have also been the target of investigations using the law.
Khan has not been detained on other minor charges levied against him during his recent anti-government campaign.
Also on Monday, a court in Islamabad ruled Tuesday would begin contempt proceedings against Khan for threatening a judge, according to court officials. Pakistani courts usually pardon people when they apologize, although some politicians have also been convicted of insulting judges in the past.
According to Washington-based advocacy group Freedom House, Pakistan’s judiciary also has a history of politicization and taking sides in power struggles between the military, the civilian government and opposition politicians. Current Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif is likely to discuss charges against Khan at a cabinet meeting scheduled for Tuesday.
Khan came to power in 2018 and vowed to break the pattern of family government in Pakistan. His opponents claim he was elected with the help of the powerful military, which has ruled the country for half of its 75-year history.
In seeking to impeach Khan earlier this year, the opposition had accused him of economic mismanagement as inflation rises and the Pakistani rupee declines in value. The vote of no confidence in parliament in April that Khan . expelled ended months of political unrest and a constitutional crisis that forced the Supreme Court to intervene. Meanwhile, the army seemed to cool down in the same way Khan did.
Khan claimed without providing evidence that the Pakistani military participated in an American plot to oust him. Washington, the Pakistani military and Sharif’s government have denied the allegations. Meanwhile, Khan is conducting a series of mass demonstrations to pressure the government.
In his final speech Sunday night at a rally in the town of Rawalpindi outside Islamabad, Khan said so-called “neutrals” were behind the recent crackdown on his party. He has used the phrase “neutrals” for the military in the past.
“A plan has been made to put our party against the wall. I assure you that the situation in Sri Lanka is going to happen here,” Khan threatened, referring to the recent economic protests that toppled that island’s government..
“Now we follow the law and the constitution. But if a political party strays from that path, the situation in Pakistan, who will stop the public? There are 220 million people.”
Khan’s party is holding mass protests, but the Pakistani government and security forces fear the former cricketer’s popularity could still draw millions of people onto the streets. That could put even more pressure on the nuclear-armed nation as it struggles to secure a $7 billion International Monetary Fund bailout amid an economic crisis.exacerbated by rising world food prices, partly as a result of the Russian war against Ukraine.
On Sunday, internet access advocacy group NetBlocks said internet services in the country blocked access to YouTube after Khan broadcast the speech on the platform, despite a ban issued by Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.
Police arrested Khan’s political aide, Shahbaz Gill, earlier this month after he appeared on private television channel ARY TV urging soldiers and officers to refuse to follow “illegal orders” from the military leadership. Gill was charged with treason, punishable by death under Pakistan’s sedition law, which stems from a British colonial-era law. ARY will also remain off air in Pakistan after that broadcast.
Khan has alleged that police abused Gill while in custody. According to police, Gill suffers from asthma and was not assaulted during his arrest.
Gill was released from hospital on Monday to attend a court hearing. He appeared healthy on television footage as he left for court under close guard. The court then ordered that he be returned to the police for two days of questioning, Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb said. He is likely to appear in court again on Thursday.
Khan’s speech in Islamabad on Saturday focused primarily on Gill’s arrest.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.