Imran Khan will appear in court on Friday, a day after Pakistan’s Supreme Court deemed his arrest illegal and ordered his release, as authorities were braced for a continuation of unrest that has engulfed the country this week.
The opposition leader is also expected to address supporters for the first time since he was taken into custody on Tuesday, a move that sparked some of Pakistan’s worst political violence in years.
Hundreds of supporters and several senior leaders of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have been arrested in days of clashes with police around the country following his detention by an anti-graft agency, with at least five people killed.
Khan’s arrest and its fallout have tipped Pakistan, a country of 220mn people, even deeper into an already severe political and economic crisis.
The 70-year-old former prime minister will appear before the Islamabad High Court over allegations that a charitable foundation controlled by him and his wife engaged in a corrupt land purchase.
Khan, who faces several other legal cases ranging from allegations that he unlawfully sold gifts received as prime minister to terrorism charges related to protests by his supporters, denies all the allegations.
He and his supporters contend that the legal challenges are a politically motivated effort to discredit him and prevent him from running in elections set for October this year.
Khan spent Thursday night under protection in a police guest house after the Supreme Court intervention. The PTI said he would address his supporters at a highway near Islamabad following his court appearance.
The PTI said thousands of “peaceful Pakistanis” were due to gather in solidarity with Khan.
But police on Friday issued an emergency order banning gatherings in Islamabad to forestall further rallies, with hundreds of officers blocking roads in the capital and neighbouring Rawalpindi.
Officials said Khan might be arrested in connection with other cases. “The Supreme Court has given relief to Imran Khan in one case and ordered his release,” a leader from Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s ruling party said. “But there are many other cases where proceedings will continue and his arrest can be ordered.”
A former cricket star, Khan was ousted as prime minister last year by parliament following a no-confidence vote but remains the country’s most popular politician. He is expected to emerge as the favourite in this year’s election if allowed to run in a fair contest, according to analysts.
Khan’s rivalry with Sharif has turned increasingly hostile in recent months as both sides trade accusations of wrongdoing. The prime minister has branded the protests this week as “terrorism”.
Sharif has been locked in months-long negotiations with the IMF to secure a bailout that many analysts say is needed for Pakistan to avoid default. A surge in import costs has depleted the country’s foreign reserves and triggered double-digit inflation, leading to shortages of essential goods and rising poverty.
In response to the protests, Pakistani authorities restricted access to the internet and social media platforms including Facebook, prompting concern from international observers.
The public backlash has also prompted local officials to block roads using transportation containers and trucks, disrupting food supplies to large cities.
“I support de-escalation efforts and call for the immediate restoration of public access to internet services,” said US senator Bob Menendez, chair of the foreign relations committee, on Thursday. “These shutdowns dangerously suppress the Pakistani people’s freedoms, including access to information.”