WESTMINSTER, Canada — ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — On Sunday, Pakistan’s current government filed charges against former prime minister Imran Khan under the country’s antiterrorism act, marking a dramatic escalation of the tense power struggle between the current government and the country’s former leader that threatens to set off a new round of public unrest and turmoil.
Mr. Khan, the former cricket star who was ousted from power in a no-confidence vote in April, was charged with threatening senior police officers and a judge involved in the case after making an impassioned speech to hundreds of supporters at a rally in the capital, Islamabad.
Mr. Khan threatened them with legal action, saying, “We will not spare you.”
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According to local media reports, the police report detailing the charges against the former prime minister stated that his comments amounted to a deliberate and illegal attempt to intimidate the country’s judiciary and police force.
According to Fawad Chaudhry, a senior leader of Mr. Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Mr. Khan has not yet been arrested and is currently in Islamabad. As of this writing, Mr. Khan has made no public statements in response to the allegations.
Although Mr. Khan lost his position as prime minister in April, he has shown that he is still a major player in Pakistani politics.
The charismatic populist leader has attracted large crowds to his rallies across the country in recent months, and his party has been able to use this support to win elections. Punjab, the province with the most people, gave it an easy victory in local elections in July, and this month it did well in voting in Karachi, the country’s economic hub.
“Imran Khan is clearly an order of magnitude stronger than he was when he removed — the removal was probably the best thing to happen to him,” said Adil Najam, dean of Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies and an expert on Pakistani politics.
Experts say that despite Mr. Khan’s efforts to make a political comeback, he and his supporters are facing a growing crackdown aimed at limiting the electoral success of his party.
The Pakistani government has forbidden news networks from airing his speeches in real time. The state authorities have allegedly been harassing and threatening several journalists and talk show hosts who are sympathetic to Mr. Khan in recent weeks.
Further, Mr. Khan’s top aide Shahbaz Gill was arrested earlier this month for allegedly criticizing the military on a television show. Military officials have claimed that his incitement of officers to disobey orders from higher-ups was an attempt to start a coup.
After Mr. Gill’s comments aired on the widely watched cable news channel ARY News, the network was shut down by authorities.
Senior government ministers and Islamabad police officials have denied Mr. Khan and his party leaders’ claims that Mr. Gill was tortured and sexually abused while in custody.
At a news conference on Sunday, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said, “I can confirm as the interior minister that no torture was carried out against Gill during the police custody.”
Since its inception 75 years ago, Pakistan, a nuclear power with the world’s second-largest Muslim population, has been plagued by political instability and military coups. The military establishment is still widely regarded as the country’s primary power broker even when civilian governments are in place, and its influence over elections is substantial.
Mr. Khan’s fortunes have changed dramatically since the recent crackdown.
Many of Mr. Khan’s detractors in the 2018 election for prime minister claimed that he won thanks to an underhanded deal with the armed forces. His opponents in politics claimed that security forces conducted a campaign of coercion and intimidation to silence their voices in opposition to Mr. Khan, thereby reducing the number of viable candidates. This has been strongly refuted by military authorities.
Mr. Khan was removed from office in a vote of no-confidence earlier this year, after the military leaders of Pakistan appeared to withdraw their support for him and ease their grip on his political opposition.
Mr. Khan has accused the United States and the Pakistani military of plotting to overthrow his government and has called for new elections in the months since. Mr. Khan continued his criticism of the military in a speech he delivered on Sunday in Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjacent to the capital.
“Are you really neutral or not?” he probed.
Many people are worried that if Mr. Khan is arrested now, it will spark another wave of public unrest and violent street protests across the country.
Angry protesters gathered outside Mr. Khan’s lavish mansion on the outskirts of the capital city as news of his impending arrest spread.
Mr. Chaudhry, the senior leader of Mr. Khan’s party, said, “Hundreds of people are gathered at the residence of Mr. Khan, and thousands are headed here from other parts of the country to express support for their leader.” After taking stock of the massive crowd, the police have retreated. Just wait and see what develops.”
Salman Masood filed a report from Islamabad, while Christina Goldbaum filed one from New York.
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