Protests in Pakistan Continue

Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Alliance protest outside the Supreme Court, in Islamabad, May 15, 2023. Protesters demanded the resignation of the chief justice over ordering the release of former Prime Minister Imran Khan

Thousands of supporters of Pakistan’s coalition government Monday gathered outside the country’s Supreme Court demanding the chief justice resign for releasing former prime minister and leading opposition politician Imran Khan.

Buses and vans transported people from around the country to the capital, Islamabad, where they made their way into a high-security zone, housing the top court and other key government buildings.

The rare agitation underscores tensions between incumbent Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s embattled coalition government and the country’s judiciary.

Khan was arrested by dozens of security officers last week, who forcibly removed him from court when he appeared for a hearing on corruption charges, into a police vehicle, sparking widespread violent protests from his supporters.

News reports say that over 1,000 people have been arrested nationwide, and eight have died during the protests so far, with hundreds injured.

With protests continuing, mobile internet, and access to social media, was reportedly down on Wednesday, while schools and universities in Punjab – Pakistan’s most populous state – were closed.

Hundreds were reportedly arrested there, with at least 25 police vehicles set alight, and 130 officers injured during clashes, with some official buildings looted.

The UN Secretary-General on Wednesday, called for an end to the violence that has continued across parts of Pakistan, following the arrest a day earlier of former Prime Minister, Imran Khan.

Khan pleaded not guilty to corruption charges on Wednesday, appearing before a judge at a police guest house, which also served as a courtroom, according to news reports.

His appearance there, reportedly coincided with an indictment by the High Court in Islamabad, in a separate corruption case brought by the Election Commission, involving allegations that he sold millions of dollars-worth of State gifts – charges which the former premier and cricket star has also denied.

If convicted, Mr. Khan would be reportedly disqualified from standing for office, with elections due later this year.

In a statement issued by his Spokesperson, UN chief António Guterres, took note of the ongoing protests, and called “for all parties to refrain from violence.” Guterres “calls for all parties to refrain from violence. He stresses the need to respect the right to peaceful assembly”, the short statement continued. The UN chief also urged the authorities “to respect due process and the rule of law in proceedings brought against former Prime Minister Khan.”

The dramatic arrest of the 70-year-old PTI chief came as he awaited a hearing on the more than 100 legal cases facing him since a parliamentary vote of no-confidence ousted him from office in April 2022. The allegations range from corruption and sedition to terrorism and murder.

But Supreme Court Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial on Thursday ordered Khan’s immediate release, declaring his arrest “unlawful” and in violation of his right to seek justice.

On Friday, the federal court where Khan was taken into custody protected him from arrest until later this month. Khan accused the Pakistani military of orchestrating his arrest.

The successive judicial rulings drew a rebuke from Sharif and other leaders of his multi-party coalition, known as the Pakistan Democratic Movement, or PDM. They accused the top court of giving “undue reprieve” to Khan.

While protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court, PDM lawmakers and federal ministers in fiery televised speeches in the National Assembly — the lower house of parliament — condemned the chief justice and his rulings in favor of the opposition leader.

Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif called for legal proceedings against the alleged “misconduct” of the chief justice and several co-judges to remove them from office.

The fundamentalist Islamic party, Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam (JUI), a coalition partner, led Monday’s pro-government rally. Its chief, Maulana Fazalur Rehman, has called on students from thousands of JUI-run countrywide madrassas, or religious seminaries, to converge on Islamabad.

“We are here to protest the Supreme Court decision that relieved a criminal. They keep ruling in favor of this one person, Imran Khan,” said Fazle Azeem, a JUI activist at the rally.

Workers of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML-N and those of other partners in the 13-member coalition also joined the rally.

“They give him a blanket immunity. We want him [the chief justice] to make decisions according to the law and the constitution. That’s what we are going to ask him to do,” said Uzma Kardar, a PML-N member.

Television footage showed protesters climbing security gates and forcing their way into the so-called high-security “red zone” without being challenged by security forces, despite a ban on such gatherings in the capital. The rally remained peaceful.

Last week, police used tear gas and baton charges and detained hundreds of Khan supporters for breaching the ban as they protested his arrest.

“Meanwhile, these goons are being facilitated by our security agencies to take over the Supreme Court and subvert the Constitution. All citizens be ready for peaceful protests as once the Constitution and SC are destroyed, it is the end of the Pakistan dream,” Khan wrote on Twitter.

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