Mr. Khan, a former cricket star, has staged a comeback since being ousted, openly challenging the powerful military. His detention raises fears of mass protests.
Video shows paramilitary troops arresting Imran Khan, Pakistan’s ousted prime minister, during a court hearing in Islamabad.CreditCredit…Aamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Pakistan’s ousted prime minister, Imran Khan, was arrested on corruption charges Tuesday in a major escalation of a political crisis that raises the prospect of mass unrest by his supporters.
The crisis has been building for months as Mr. Khan has openly challenged the Pakistani military and the current government, saying they are conspiring against him. The military on Monday accused the former leader of making false accusations against a senior intelligence official.
Mr. Khan was at a court hearing in Islamabad when he was arrested by paramilitary troops. After being removed from office in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April last year, Mr. Khan is facing dozens of court cases on charges that include terrorism and corruption, and has repeatedly faced threats of arrest after failing to appear in court.
The arrest of Mr. Khan prompted protests in several cities. In Islamabad, his supporters tried to block a major highway, while in Lahore, they were gathering for a demonstration near the residences for military officers.
The arrest intensified a showdown between the current government and Mr. Khan, a populist former cricket star, in the months since his removal from office.
Since then, even as some political figures have accused him of selfish and obstructionist behavior, he has appeared to gain popularity, and his party commands powerful loyalty across the country. Tens of thousands have thronged political rallies in recent months at which Mr. Khan and others have called for fresh elections and accused Pakistan’s powerful military establishment of orchestrating his ouster.
Security personnel escorting a vehicle carrying Mr. Khan to a court in Islamabad on Tuesday.Credit…Aamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Mr. Khan and his supporters have characterized the charges against him as a misuse of the justice system by the government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and by the military to keep him out from politics. Pakistani political and military leaders have repeatedly denied those claims.
The political tensions surrounding Mr. Khan came to a head in November, when the former prime minister was wounded during a political rally after an unidentified man opened fire on his convoy, in what aides have called an assassination attempt. Since then, Mr. Khan has been mostly ensconced at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.
Mr. Khan was arrested in connection with a case involving the transfer of land for Al-Qadir University, near Islamabad. Mr. Khan is accused of granting favors to Malik Riaz Hussain, a powerful real estate tycoon, with the university getting land and donations in return.
The drama surrounding Mr. Khan seems only to have buoyed his popularity, analysts say, underscoring his unique ability to outmaneuver Pakistan’s typical playbook for sidelining political leaders who have fallen out of favor with the country’s powerful military.
Over the summer, his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., won sweeping victories in local elections in Punjab — a province that has often served as a bellwether for national politics — and in the port city of Karachi.
Those political victories were also seen as a response to worsening economic conditions that the new government has struggled to address, and as a repudiation of the military establishment, which has long wielded a heavy hand in Pakistani politics.
But they have prompted a growing crackdown on Mr. Khan and his supporters that many view as a coordinated effort by the authorities to dampen his political prospects.
A rally in Karachi on Tuesday to protest Mr. Khan’s arrest.Credit…Asif Hassan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Journalists known to be sympathetic to Mr. Khan say they have been harassed by the authorities. Live broadcasts of Mr. Khan’s speeches have been banned from news television channels. A mainstream channel, ARY News, was forced off the air after airing an interview with one of Mr. Khan’s top aides in which he made anti-military remarks.
The crisis has flipped the script for Mr. Khan, who benefited from a close relationship with the military when he was elected prime minister in 2018. At the time, his political rivals claimed that the authorities had waged a campaign of coercion and intimidation that deterred any opposition to Mr. Khan and ensured his electoral success.
Military officials have denied those accusations and maintained that the institution has adopted a “neutral” position in the current political crisis. The military appeared to withdraw their support for Mr. Khan at the beginning of last year, after which lawmakers in Parliament removed him with the no-confidence vote.
Since then, Mr. Khan’s accusations that the military was colluding against him have grown increasingly harsh and direct — a rarity in Pakistan’s political system, where the military wields an intimidating influence.
Still, Mr. Khan has retained widespread popularity — a sign that the authorities’ traditional methods may not be enough to silence a populist politician in the era of social media, analysts say.
Now, many fear Mr. Khan’s arrest will further escalate the political turmoil that has embroiled the country in recent months. Before Mr. Khan was detained, his aides warned that doing so would set off mass unrest that could bring Pakistan to a standstill.