A court in Pakistan barred authorities Monday from arresting former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is facing terrorism charges after being accused of threatening police and judicial officers in a weekend speech.
Defense lawyer Babar Awan told reporters in Islamabad that the capital’s high court granted Khan pre-arrest bail until Thursday to allow him to meet procedural requirements before taking up his petition against the charges.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party has denounced the terrorism charges as an illegal and politically motivated move by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government to silence the opposition, fueling political tensions in the country of about 220 million people.
The former prime minister has staged massive anti-government rallies across Pakistan, drawing tens of thousands of people since his ouster from power in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April to pressure Sharif into calling fresh elections to let the people determine his fate.
The controversial terrorism charges stemmed from Khan’s speech at a big rally in the Pakistani capital Saturday, where he vowed to bring lawsuits against senior police officers and a female judge for their roles in the alleged torture of his detained close aide, Shahbaz Gill.
“We will not spare you,” Khan said at the rally. “We will sue you.”
Government officials defended the charges, arguing that “the purpose of the speech was to spread terror amongst the police and the judiciary and prevent them from doing their duty.”
Khan, 70, could face several years in prison if convicted under Pakistan’s anti-terror law. But PTI leaders and supporters have warned they would march on Islamabad if their party chief is arrested.
“If Imran Khan is arrested … we will take over Islamabad,” tweeted Ali Amin Gandapur, who was a minister in Khan’s ousted government.
Addressing a televised seminar in Islamabad on Monday, Khan criticized the terrorism charges, saying it was his legal right to approach the higher judiciary to seek justice for Gill, who he said was abducted and subsequently tortured in police custody.
“I had called to take legal action against them [police officers and the female judge],” Khan told the televised event. “All these things show that we don’t have rule of law in Pakistan.”
The former leader noted that he has 16 cases against him, in addition to the latest terrorism case, since his ouster from office.
Shortly after Khan’s speech on Saturday, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordered television channels not to broadcast live his future speeches. The regulatory authority did, however, allow pre-recorded speeches by Khan but alleged he was “leveling baseless allegations and spreading hate speech.”
Gill was arrested on sedition charges two weeks ago for allegedly making anti-military comments on Pakistan’s most watched ARY News television channel, which was subsequently removed from the air by the government.
The military has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 75-year history through coups against democratically elected governments, and criticism of the powerful institution is considered a red line.
Gill, 42, was admitted to a government hospital in the capital last week after his health deteriorated in police custody. The assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is Khan’s chief of staff. Khan and his party alleged that Gill had also been sexually abused.
Gill told the court Monday that he has been stripped several times and tortured since he was taken into custody on August 9. The judge gave him a “judicial remand” for two more days, which allows police to investigate him further before filing formal charges.
Khan lamented that instead of investigating Gill’s complaint, the court extended his police custody. Officials at the University of Illinois expressed concern about Gill’s poor health.
“Shahbaz Gill is a U.S. permanent resident who has been a member of our faculty for more than a decade. … We care deeply about his health and well-being, and we abhor violence and abuse of any kind,” the university said in a statement posted online. “We call on the government of Pakistan and the international community to ensure that Dr. Gill be treated in accordance with international human rights law.”
Pakistani officials have rejected allegations of torture against Khan’s detained aide.
“I can confirm with full responsibility as the interior minister that no torture was inflicted on Gill while in police custody,” Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said.
Pakistan introduced anti-terrorism laws in the 1990s to deter sectarian and religiously motivated extremist violence in the country. But successive governments have used the legislation in cases against political opponents and critics to deter dissent.
The Sharif government has also filed terrorism charges against several journalists for reporting in favor of Khan, briefly detaining some of them and forcing a couple of popular political talk show hosts to flee Pakistan.
On Sunday, Khan addressed a rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to Islamabad, but internet providers and cable operators blocked his speech. Global internet monitoring organization NetBlocks confirmed that YouTube service in Pakistan was also disrupted as livestreams of the speech began to appear on the platform.
Khan demands that Sharif, who led the no-confidence vote against him, step down and dismiss the new government as an illegal entity. The deposed Pakistani leader continues to allege that his ouster stemmed from a conspiracy plotted by the United States, charges that Washington rejects.
Khan’s PTI swept last month’s by-elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and it also won a key by-election in the largest city, Karachi, on Sunday, underscoring his resurgent popularity.
The deteriorating political turmoil in Pakistan could undermine efforts by the Sharif administration to address critical economic challenges and secure a much-awaited $1.2 billion installment from the International Monetary Fund, which is due to consider the loan at a board meeting later this month.