Islamabad (AFP) – Pakistani police arrested hundreds of supporters of ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan overnight before a major sit-in planned by the former leader, senior party officials and police sources said on Tuesday, as the government was committed to blocking the demonstration.
Khan, a cricketer star turned populist politician, was ousted from power last month in a vote of no confidence but has since pressured the country’s fragile new coalition government by holding mass rallies across the country .
Alleging he was expelled by a “foreign plot”, Khan plans on Wednesday to drive tens of thousands of supporters from his power base in the northwest city of Peshawar to the capital Islamabad demanding new elections.
“Tomorrow I will lead the biggest march in the history of Pakistan. I don’t see this as politics but as jihad,” Khan said, referring to a term used by Muslims to describe a struggle.
Security was being tightened across the country, with shipping container roadblocks set up in Islamabad and the government district quarantined, while numerous entry and exit points around the city from Lahore – about 380 kilometers (236 miles) – were also blocked.
“This (protest) is meant to divide the nation and sow chaos,” Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters. “No one should be allowed to besiege the capital and dictate its terms.”
“This march cannot take place,” added Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb.
Two police officials told AFP that more than 200 supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party had been arrested in overnight raids in the country’s most populous province, Punjab.
They were arrested for disturbing public order and remain in detention, one of the sources said.
Fawad Chaudhry, the former information minister in Khan’s government, accused the police of not having the necessary warrants and put the number of arrests at more than 400.
“More than 1,100 homes were raided overnight. Police entered homes without warrants and insulted women and children,” he tweeted.
A policeman was shot dead during a raid on the house of a PTI supporter in Lahore, Punjab Chief Minister Hamza Shahbaz Sharif has said.
Police have not officially commented on the arrests or the allegations.
Attaullah Tarar – a senior member of new Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s PML-N party – told a press conference that protesters had planned to join the march “with arms”.
“We have information that they have started collecting ammunition from various locations,” he told reporters.
Political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi told AFP that the all-powerful Pakistani military currently remains neutral in the stalemate but “it could try to de-escalate the situation if it gets worse”.
On Saturday, PTI leader and former minister Shireen Mazari was arrested near her home in the capital over a decades-old land dispute. She was briefly detained before a court ordered her release.
In 2018, Khan was elected by an electorate weary of the dynastic politics of the country’s two main parties, with the popular former sports star promising to sweep away decades of entrenched corruption and cronyism.
He was brought down in part by his failure to address the country’s dire economic situation, including its crippling debt, dwindling foreign exchange reserves and soaring inflation.
Sharif is now grappling with the same crisis, along with rising militancy and deteriorating relations with the West.
© 2022 AFP