Pakistani police scuffled with supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday as officers arrived outside his home to arrest him for failing to appear in court on graft charges, police and officials said.
The police operation triggered clashes between Khan’s supporters and police in the country’s major cities.
Police in the eastern city of Lahore planned to serve Khan with a warrant to appear in court later this week. They fired tear gas at the house as the 71-year-old opposition leader’s supporters hurled rocks and bricks at the officers.
About a dozen police and some 35 of Khan’s supporters were reported injured. Tear gas shells and pieces of bricks littered the pavement as Khan’s followers fought back with batons they had brought to resist police.
Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament last April, was ordered to appear before a judge in Islamabad on Friday to answer charges of illegally selling state gifts he had received during his term as premier and concealing his assets.
The former premier has avoided appearances before the court since November when he was wounded in a gun attack at a protest rally in the eastern Punjab province, claiming he was not medically fit to travel from Lahore to Islamabad to face indictment.
Last week, he went to Islamabad to appear before three courts, but he failed to appear before the fourth court to face indictment in the graft case, which is a legal process for starting his trial.
Khan has claimed that the string of cases against him, which includes terrorism charges, are a plot by the government of his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, to discredit the former cricket star turned Islamist politician.
On Tuesday, Sharif told Pakistan’s Geo television that Khan’s arrest was ordered by a court, and it was not political victimization.
“We will arrest him, and will do it on a court order,” Shahzad Bukhari, deputy-inspector general of Islamabad police, told reporters earlier in Lahore. Bukhari was later also lightly injured in the violence and received first aid from police medics at the scene.
However, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a top leader from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, said the government was trying to disrupt law and order by sending police to Khan’s house.
“We are ready to find a middle way through talks with police, but we should know what the purpose of today’s police raid is,” he said. “Don’t worsen the situation. Let us sit and discuss what you want,” Qureshi asked the police. He said Khan could consider voluntarily offering his arrest, “but let us talk first.”
Fawad Chaudhry, another senior party leader, said Khan’s legal team was in the process of submitting a request to the Islamabad High Court to have warrants against Khan suspended. Khan’s lawyers were also legally challenging the warrants before another Islamabad court later Tuesday.
From inside his home, Khan urged his followers to fight on even if he is arrested in a message on Twitter. “They think this nation will fall asleep when Imran Khan is jailed,” he said. “You need to prove them wrong.”
Police said reinforcements were on their way to Khan’s house to bring the situation under control.
TV footage showed tear gas shells falling inside Khan’s house.
Angered over the expected arrest of Khan, his supporters took to the streets across Pakistan, blocking some key roads near Islamabad while asking the government to refrain from arresting Khan.
“We will arrest this man on the court order and he ran away to avoid arrest,” said Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, who is not related to the former premier. He said Khan will be produced before the court.
Earlier on Tuesday, Sharif’s government made changes approved by the Cabinet to clarify laws banning officials from keeping valuable state gifts received while in office. The ban clarifies that no official — including the country’s prime minister, figurehead president, and Cabinet ministers — can keep a gift that exceeds $300 in value.
The ban says any recipient must deposit such a gift with the state repository, known as Toshakhana in the Urdu language, within a month of receiving it. The gifts would from now on be perceived as state property, it added.
Impoverished Pakistan has been embroiled in a deepening economic crisis and is trying to negotiate a desperately needed bailout from the International Monetary Fund to avoid a default.
Until his ouster, Khan’s government had blocked the release of any information about gifts officials received from visiting dignitaries. In the past, officials receiving a gift — regardless of its value — would symbolically reimburse state coffers with a small amount and keep the gift.
In a major U-turn, Sharif’s government on Monday publicized a list of gifts given to officials from past administrations, listing each item’s value and the minor amounts paid by the recipients since 2002.