Police in Pakistan attempted to arrest former prime minister Imran Khan on Tuesday but were blocked by hundreds of his supporters outside his residence in the eastern city of Lahore.
In major cities later in the day, supporters of Khan’s opposition Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party protested the possible arrest of their leader.
The 70-year-old politician has been facing dozens of court cases, including sedition, terrorism and corruption charges, since a parliamentary vote of no-confidence toppled his government last April.
Khan denies all the allegations, saying they are an outcome of the “political victimization” by his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.
Khan has been ordered to appear before a court in Islamabad on Saturday to answer charges of threatening a female judge at a public rally in the Pakistani capital last year.
“We have come here to arrest him in compliance with the court order,” Syed Shahzad Nadeem Bukhari, deputy inspector general of the Islamabad police, told reporters in Lahore, the capital of the country’s most populous Punjab province.
He said that PTI workers pelted police personnel with stones and bricks to block their effort, prompting them to use a water cannon and baton-charge some of them.
Live TV showed police firing tear gas shells on Khan’s stick-wielding supporters in Lahore, who also used slingshots and attacked officers with bricks.
Intermittent tear gas shelling was ongoing and police sealed off all roads leading to Khan’s residence.
“Police have arrived here to put me in prison. They believe the nation will go into slumber when Imran Khan goes to jail,” the former prime minister said in a recorded video he tweeted from inside the house.
“If something happens to me or if I get killed, you have to promise you will continue this movement even without Imran Khan and not accept the slavery of these thieves and of the one person who has been making decisions for the country,” said the former prime minister, apparently referring to the Sharif government.
Senior PTI leaders, while speaking to reporters in Lahore, declared the arrest warrants “unlawful” and warned that Khan’s forceful arrest could plunge the country into chaos.
“Our understanding is that the police cannot arrest Imran Khan because he has already secured a protective bail from a high court,” PTI deputy chief Shah Mahmood Qureshi said.
The cricket-hero-turned-politician has been pressing Sharif to announce early general elections in Pakistan. The government has rejected the demand, saying elections would be held once the national parliament completes its mandatory five-year term in August.
Khan was shot in the leg during a protest rally last November. He has accused Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and an unnamed army general of plotting to kill him. The government rejected the charges.
Khan has also been summoned to court to answer accusations that he did not declare gifts received during his time as prime minister or the profit he earned from selling them. Khan rejects the charges as baseless and alleges he is being forced to appear in “fake” court cases so that a second assassination attempt is made on his life. However, he has not provided any evidence to substantiate his assertions.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, offered Islamabad advice on how to deal with political, economic and security crises facing the country.
“The sequential cannibalizing of its leaders through jailing, execution, assassination, etc., is the wrong path,” Khalilzad said Tuesday on Twitter. “Arresting Imran Khan will only deepen the crisis. I urge two steps: 1. Set a date for national elections in early June to avert a meltdown.
“Use this time for the main political parties to confront what has gone wrong and propose a specific plan to rescue and put the country on a path to stability, security and prosperity. Whichever party wins the election will have a mandate from the people on what must be done.”