As Pakistani police prepared to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan in his home in Lahore on Tuesday, hundreds of his supporters flocked to his side, leading to clashes. Law enforcement fired tear gas and water cannons at them outside the Zaman Park residence.
Amid the disturbance, Khan shared a rallying cry in a video posted to Twitter. “Police are here to send me to jail. They think if Imran Khan goes to jail, this nation will go to sleep. You have to prove them wrong,” he said in the video. “[If] something happens to me, if they send me to jail, or if I am killed, you have to show you can fight without me as well.”
My message to the nation to stand resolute and fight for Haqeeqi Azadi & rule of law. pic.twitter.com/bgVuOjsmHG
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) March 14, 2023
How did Khan get embroiled in legal turmoil?
Khan was ousted from his seat as Prime Minister last April after a no-confidence vote in Parliament. He claimed without evidence that his removal was illegal and a conspiracy by his political opponents and the U.S.
Khan, of the centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, has been accused of selling state gifts and not fully declaring assets while serving as prime minister. Police previously said they would arrest Khan in connection with his implication in corruption and “terrorism” cases. On Sunday, the Pakistani government released a sweeping report on foreign gifts retained by public office holders from 2002 to 2022. Khan was said to have received multiple wristwatches and ornaments.
The Pakistani government also charged Khan with “terrorism” after he criticized top officials for arresting his chief of staff; law enforcement characterized his response as threatening.
What is Khan’s populist influence?
Khan’s supporters view the many charges against him as politically motivated. “Khan supporters think that he’s not corrupt and that he is being targeted in a political witch hunt,” says Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
“It’s not surprising in the sense that the government has been saying for months that it was going to arrest Khan, because he has repeatedly failed to show up to court,” Kugelman says. They had repeatedly mentioned having an arrest warrant but did not arrest him. “What makes today different is that the government appears to mean business.”
The Pakistani government would be wary of arresting a populist leader like Khan for fear of how it may rile up his base for whom his imprisonment would be a “red line,” Kugelman says.
“The government would prefer that he gives himself up voluntarily, because images of police breaking down the doors to take Khan by force would fire off a support base in a much bigger way than if he were simply to walk out the house into a police car,” he says.
That response may differ based on how quickly Khan is released—whether he is able to get bail within a few hours or indefinitely detained. An arrest or conviction could also undercut Khan’s electoral prospects ahead of a planned national election this fall.