Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is once a free man — for now. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) today ordered Khan’s release on bail and barred his arrested on any new charges until May 15. After hours of uncertainty, he’s now on his way to his residence in Lahore.
Khan was violently arrested by paramilitary forces from the premises of the IHC on Tuesday, which the country’s Supreme Court declared unlawful yesterday.
Since Khan’s removal from power in a vote of confidence last year, Pakistan has been locked in a power struggle involving Khan, the current coalition government, and factions of the army, intelligence services, and the judiciary.
The battle in Pakistan is complex and the stakes are high. Pakistan’s politics have always been messy. But this has become an existential fight between the country’s major power brokers.
Khan survived an assassination attempt in November, which he has repeatedly blamed on a senior intelligence official. And Pakistan’s current rulers fear retribution if Khan — the country’s most popular politician by far — returns to power in free and fair elections. General elections must take place by this October.
As a result, they are keen to keep Khan behind bars. According to Pakistan’s Geo News, both the Islamabad and Punjab police forces were mobilized outside the court to arrest Khan on new charges. The interior minister even said he could keep Khan in custody to “protect” him. But today’s IHC ruling gives Khan at least a few more days of freedom.
Khan, an ex-cricket star and philanthropist, has defied the low expectations of his opponents since last year. They dismissed him as a weak politician dependent on the military’s support for political relevance. But his support among the people of Pakistan has only deepened and widened as a result of the government’s heavy-handed tactics against him. Every blow makes Khan stronger.
Now, once again, this round in Pakistan’s unending political slugfest goes to Khan. But the fight is not over. A new round has already begun.
What to Watch Out For Next Week:
Will Khan be rearrested? The IHC bars Khan’s arrest on new charges until Monday. But Khan faces dozens of court cases and could be hit with new charges that would enable his arrest once again. Pakistan’s public order laws give the government expansive powers to detain people without charge. They’ve already been used to arrest top members of Khan’s party.
Will the prime minister be hit with contempt of court charges? Pakistan’s chief justice, who is accused of being sympathetic to Khan, has once again shown his aggressive, independent streak. On Sunday, the deadline he imposed for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provincial assembly elections will expire. It’s clear they won’t be held, in violation of the court order (and the constitution). So there remains the possibility that senior government officials, including Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, could be hit with contempt of court notices next week, which may eventually lead to disqualification from public office.
Will two big security meetings be held? Pakistan’s National Security Council (NSC) was supposed to convene on Friday to discuss the political crisis. Along with top civilian officials, the heads of the military services and Inter-Services Intelligence agency also attend. The meeting was delayed. Unconfirmed claims attribute it to the refusal of senior military officials to take part in the meeting due to an unwillingness to lend support to the political crackdown.
A meeting of the top commanders of the Pakistan Army is also due soon. Given claims of dissension within the ranks of the Pakistan Army, whether the Corps Commanders Conference is held and who attends will give us a sense of the state of play within the military. The same goes for the NSC meeting.
Will an emergency be declared? Given the political crisis and violence, Pakistan is rife with rumors of the imposition of martial law, which the military denied today publicly. Pakistan’s Geo News reports the country’s political leadership discussed the potential declaration of emergency in the country today, but could not come to a consensus in its favor.
A quasi-state of emergency exists in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces, which are governed by unelected “caretaker” governments. The government already has significant arrest powers under colonial-era laws. But the economy is heading toward default. Pakistan’s institutions are fractured. The imposition of an emergency is unlikely within the next week, but the risk grows the longer the economic and political crises continue.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.