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Imran Khan, Pakistan's former prime minister, is arrested in Islamabad

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party activists and supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan block a road during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Hyderabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday.
Akram Shahid
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AFP via Getty Images
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party activists and supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan block a road during a protest against the arrest of their leader in Hyderabad, Pakistan, on Tuesday.

Updated May 9, 2023 at 10:14 AM ET

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's paramilitary forces arrested former Prime Minister Imran Khan inside a courthouse in the capital Islamabad on Tuesday. The move has escalated political tensions at a time of economic distress in the country.

Khan's arrest triggered rare pushback against the military, the country's most powerful institution.

According to videos shared by Khan's media team, the former prime minister's supporters — mostly men, but also some women — appeared to overrun a gate leading into the compound of Pakistan's military headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi. Shouting "Allah Akbar," or God is great, they are seen in the videos using sticks to smash through the first gate that separates the compound from the road beyond.

Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan block an entry gate of the Pakistani army's headquarters during a protest against the arrest of their leader, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Tuesday. Khan was arrested as he appeared in court to face charges in multiple graft cases, a dramatic escalation of political tensions that sparked violent demonstrations in major cities.
Khurram Butt / AP
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AP
Supporters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan block an entry gate of the Pakistani army's headquarters during a protest against the arrest of their leader, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, Tuesday. Khan was arrested as he appeared in court to face charges in multiple graft cases, a dramatic escalation of political tensions that sparked violent demonstrations in major cities.

It was the first time many Pakistanis could recall such a brazen move against the military.

The military did not respond to NPR requests for comment or verify the videos.

Khan's supporters have also shared videos showing men clutching sticks and clubs, smashing up a home they identified as belonging to a senior military official in the Pakistani city of Lahore, and setting it on fire.

Supporters held demonstrations outside other military compounds, and appeared to take over a historic military fort in the northwestern city of Peshawar. In another video, the sound of what appeared to be the crackle of gunfire erupted as protesters dragged away a bleeding, wounded man. NPR has not independently verified the videos.

One man who requested anonymity, fearing for his safety, says he filmed dozens of people storming the entrance of Pakistan's military headquarters in Rawalpindi. "It was a scene that was unbelievable to me — that's why I thought, I should film this," he tells NPR. "In Pakistan, protests take place, but you can't imagine a protest taking place in front of a military building, especially military headquarters. Even when I was standing in front of headquarters, I couldn't believe it was happening."

In a statement sent to journalists, Amir Mir, the information minister and spokesman for the caretaker government in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, said: "These miscreants have crossed red lines... incidents in Lahore and Rawalpindi amount to committing enmity against the country. This is not politics. This is naked terrorism. There will be stern action taken."

The protests began after footage shared by Khan's media team showed khaki-clad men breaking a window with their batons to extricate the former prime minister, who was in a room designated to check biometric details. Khan appeared in the Islamabad courthouse on Tuesday to attend a session of one of the dozens of cases he is embroiled in.

Following Khan's detention, Islamabad police issued an order banning demonstrations, as did authorities in Punjab, whose capital Lahore is considered the seat of Khan's power. In the past, Khan's supporters have ignored similar orders.

"We are poised on a knife's edge. The next few hours and next few days are going to be crucial in determining the short-term prospects for stability here," says Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist who heads a think tank, Tabadlab.

"A lot will depend on the PTI's leadership," says Zaidi, referring to the acronym of Khan's political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf.

"Pakistan's biggest political leader was arrested," said one of Khan's closest allies, Asad Umar, in an Urdu-language tweet. "The world can see there is no law and order in Pakistan anymore." Umar said Khan's party had formed a six-member committee to decide on further actions.

In Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters, "We just want to make sure that whatever happens in Pakistan is consistent with the rule of law, with the constitution."

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, speaking alongside Blinken, said, "The U.K. has a longstanding and close relationship with Pakistan. We are Commonwealth partners. We want to see a peaceful democracy in that country. We want to see the rule of law adhered to."

In March, Khan dodged a previous arrest attempt at his residence in Lahore, with his supporters clashing with police, ultimately pushing them back.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said on Twitter that Khan was arrested in relation to a case filed in Pakistan's anti-corruption court, which Khan had not attended. Analysts say the anti-corruption court's powers have been used to hound critics of the military — as has the filing of multiple cases in courts around the country.

Khan's detention came after Pakistan's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Sharif, released an usually sharply worded statement against the former prime minister, warning him not to malign a serving officer. That followed recent allegations made by Khan that a military intelligence official was leading behind a plot to kill him.

Sharif described Khan's claims as "highly irresponsible and baseless allegations" which were "unfortunate, deplorable and unacceptable."

To add insult to the allegations, Khan referred to the military intelligence official as "Dirty Harry," from an old Clint Eastwood movie — allegations he doubled down on Tuesday before reaching the courthouse.

"ISPR sahib," Khan said in avideo statement on Twitter, referring to the military spokesman, "when an institution takes action against black sheep, it improves its own credibility. An institution which catches corrupt people strengthens itself," he said, according to translated remarks reported in the Dawn newspaper. "It is my army, my Pakistan not just yours. It is our army."

Khan was ousted from power in April last year in a no-confidence motion, after the military signaled it no longer supported his rule.

Pakistan has been mired in a political crisis since then, with Khan and his supporters routinely taking to the streets to demand early elections. Their demand has grown louder since Khan's party swept a series of by-elections last year, suggesting it had only grown in power since the former prime minister's ouster.

Pakistan's military has repeatedly signaled that it does not like or trust Khan, after working closely with his coalition government. It is an irony not lost on many Pakistani analysts, who say that it was the army who helped propel Khan's political fortunes and paved the way for him to win elections in 2018.

Pakistan's political crisis has worsened an economic crisis that has caused food prices to soar and pushed millions close to starvation. There are concerns that the country could default on its debt, owing to its thin foreign currency reserves.

For all of Pakistan's present instability, Zaidi says the army arresting a prime minister is not unusual in the country's history.

"Ironically, for the instability and unpredictability of the moment," he says, "there's a counterfactual to that, which is the predictability of Pakistan: if you are a popular Pakistani politician, you end up in jail."

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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

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