Pakistan government supporters stage rare sit-in, protest release of former Premier Imran Khan

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Supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of the ruling political parties, take part in a rally outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, May 15, 2023. Convoys of buses and vehicles filled with Pakistani pro-government supporters are flooding the main road leading to the country's capital on Monday to protest the release of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

ISLAMABAD – Convoys of buses and vehicles filled with Pakistani government supporters are flooding the main road leading to the country's capital on Monday to protest the release of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Thousands are making their way to the Supreme Court for a rare sit-in against its decision last week in support of Khan, following his arrest in a graft case. The 70-year-old former premier was released on bail and given protection from arrest until later this month.

The call to protest is a sign of escalating tensions between the judiciary and the government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who replaced Khan after his ouster in a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April 2022.

Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of 13 political parties affiliated with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, had called for the sit-in. The radical Islamist political party Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam is leading the protest call.

Also as part of the alliance, Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — the son of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — is also joining the protest.

The sit-in is expected to take place despite a ban on rallies and public gatherings that the government imposed in the wake of the crisis.

“Our peaceful protest is against Chief Justice (Umar Ata Bandial) for facilitating the release of Imran Khan,” said Fazalur Rehman, the head of Pakistan Democratic Alliance. As he spoke, more than 3,000 supporters had already gathered near the sprawling court building.

In a televised statement on Monday, Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif accused the Supreme Court of siding with Khan. He suggested the court “examine the conduct of the chief justice" and take legal action against him.

From his home in the eastern city of Lahore, where he returned to following his release, Khan claimed in a tweet Monday that the sit-in is being orchestrated to remove the Supreme Court's chief justice.

Khan was dramatically arrested from a courtroom in Islamabad and dragged out by agents of the National Accountability Bureau last Tuesday on charges of accepting millions of dollars worth of property in exchange for providing benefits to a real estate tycoon.

Khan’s arrest triggered a wave of violent protests across Pakistan. Supporters of Khan and his Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf party, clashed with police, set fire to scores of police vehicles and burned down government buildings and even military facilities, including the residence of a top regional army commander in the eastern city of Lahore.

A year after his ouster, Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician, is still widely popular in Pakistan. Khan blames Sharif, the country’s military and Washington for his removal from power, saying it was part of a conspiracy to discredit him. All three have denied the charge.

Later Monday, Khan is to appear in a court in Lahore, along with his wife Bushra Bibi, to seek bail and protection from arrest in terrorism cases filed against him because of last week's violence instigated by his supporters.

Bibi also faces possible arrest in the case related to Malik Riaz, the business tycoon, as both she and Khan are implicated in real estate acquisition from the magnate during Khan's term in office. Khan has denied the allegations.

Cash-strapped Pakistan is facing political turmoil amid stalled talks with the International Monetary Fund for the revival of a 2019 bailout to avoid a default on sovereign payment.