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Pakistan top court orders release of former PM Imran Khan

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Pakistan’s Supreme Court has ruled the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan to be illegal and ordered that he be immediately released, two days after his detention on corruption allegations triggered violent protests.

After the ruling on Thursday, violence around the country appeared to ease, though clashes between celebrating supporters of Khan and police briefly broke out near the Supreme Court building.

The government, however, denounced the ruling and said it was determined to find other legal avenues to arrest the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Khan, 70, was arrested in a corruption case by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) during a court appearance on Tuesday, triggering violent protests across the country and prompting the government to call out the army to help restore order.

PTI supporters have clashed with police around the country, and people have attacked military and government sites, trying to storm the military’s main headquarters and burning down the residence of a top general in Lahore.

More than 2,000 people have been arrested, at least 11 others killed and dozens injured in the clashes.

It was not immediately clear when Khan would be able to return home.

The court instructed that the PTI chief would remain under police protection at the Police Lines compound in Islamabad, where he has been kept since his arrest.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial asked Khan to appear on Friday at the Islamabad High Court, to reconsider its earlier ruling that the arrest was legal. Khan may also ask the court for protection from future arrest on the corruption charges.

Speaking on Pakistan’s Dunya TV, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan vowed, “We will arrest him again”, perhaps on charges that were announced a day earlier of inciting the wave of violence.

Government officials criticised the ruling, with several accusing the chief justice of bias toward Khan. Chief Justice Bandial “now should hoist the flag of Imran Khan’s party on the Supreme Court, or he should declare that the court is a suboffice of Imran’s party,” Azam Tarar, an adviser for Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, told reporters.

Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif called it a “special reprieve” for the former prime minister, saying the court ignored his supporters’ attacks on military and government installations.

Authorities have arrested at least three other senior leaders of Khan’s PTI party as of Thursday, including a former foreign minister in his cabinet during his premiership between 2018 and 2022.

Khan was also indicted on Wednesday in another corruption case in which he is accused of illegally selling state gifts during his tenure as the prime minister.

More than 100 police cases have been registered against Khan by the government since his removal from power in April 2022 after he lost a confidence vote in parliament.

Meanwhile, mobile data services remained suspended and schools and offices were closed in two of Pakistan’s four provinces. Social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have been blocked.

Rights groups have urged Pakistan to show restraint in dealing with the protests and restore the internet.

“The Pakistani government should uphold the right to peaceful protest while responding to violence with the minimum force needed,” Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Thursday.

Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi, who is also a senior PTI leader, said he was “alarmed, shocked and deeply disturbed” over the situation in the country.

“Protest is a constitutional right of every citizen of Pakistan but should always remain within the bounds of the law. The way some miscreants have damaged public property, particularly government and military buildings, is condemnable,” the president said in a statement on Thursday.

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