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Ousted Pakistani PM gets temporary bail in terror case, police barred from arresting him

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, appeared before an anti-terror court on Thursday and was granted interim bail until Sept. 1 on charges of terrorism filed against him last week, with notices sent to police not to arrest him.

Khan was charged under the country’s antiterrorism act on Sunday, a day after he gave an impassioned speech to supporters at a rally in Islamabad, condemning the recent arrest of one of his top aides, Dr. Shahbaz Gill, who has said he was tortured in police custody after his Aug. 9 arrest on sedition charges.

Police have accused Khan of making verbal threats to police officers and a judge in his speech, and say the comments amounted to a deliberate and illegal attempt to intimidate the judiciary and police force.

A court initially granted Khan three days of pre-arrest bail on Monday.

On Thursday, during a less than 10-minute hearing, the court granted Khan bail until Sept. 1 after his lawyer Babar Awan presented arguments.

The terrorism charge could carry anything from several months to 14 years in prison, the equivalent of a life sentence. Khan is currently also facing a separate contempt of court case for insulting a female judge during the same Saturday speech and could be disqualified for life from politics if convicted.

“Shahbaz Gill is subjected to violence, sexual abuse, it’s confirmed in court that he was subjected to violence,” Khan told reporters outside the court after he was granted bail. “And if I say I will take legal action against the police officials responsible, the inspector general and deputy inspector general, and the magistrate … because of that they file a terrorism case on me, you tell me, what kind of a joke has this become in the world?”

Khan said the cases against him were politically motivated because of his growing popularity among the masses.

In recent months, he has drawn tens of thousands of people to his rallies across the country, calling for early elections. In July, Khan’s party won a sweeping victory in local elections in the country’s most populous province, Punjab, and this month it also fared well in voting in the country’s economic hub of Karachi.

“The man who is the head of the country’s largest party, you try to arrest him in this case? All I want is that whoever (government) is making these decisions, they should think about this country.

“They are scared of the power of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (party), which is spreading, by-elections are being won, never have such big rallies been held in Pakistan. From that fear, to save themselves, they are trying to do a technical knockout.”

The use of anti-terrorism laws as the basis of cases against political leaders is not uncommon in Pakistan, where Khan’s government also used them against opponents and critics between 2018 and 2022.

Khan aides also say the cases against him are politically motivated.

“Because of the current situation, particularly after the July 17 by-elections in Punjab and now reinforced by the Karachi by-elections which have been held, the sitting government (of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif) realizes that politically, they just simply cannot stop Imran Khan,” former planning minister and close Khan aide, Asad Umar, told reporters outside the court on Thursday before the hearing began.

“So now they’re trying to find non-political means with which they can control him.”

On what would happen if Khan was arrested or disqualified by the court, Umar said: “Frankly nobody can predict. The bond that Imran Khan has with the people of Pakistan is special and it’s unique. Nobody in Pakistan’s history has had this kind of a direct bond with the people of Pakistan.

“So, if something illegal like that (arrest or disqualification) happens, how the people of Pakistan react, nobody can predict.”

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, strict security arrangements were in place around the Federal Judicial Complex, which houses Islamabad’s anti-terrorism court.

Police personnel were deployed in large numbers outside the court and the road immediately outside was closed off with barbed wires to keep Khan supporters away.

Charged supporters however showed up near the court venue and shouted slogans against the government, vowing to take to the streets in huge numbers if Khan was arrested.

“They have registered a terrorism case against him (Khan). What is he, a militant?” Malik Muhammad Rafiq, 65, told Arab News outside the judicial complex. “Has he fired bullets in a bazaar or shot someone?”

Close Khan aide and a former adviser in his Cabinet, Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari, said the PTI party would not let any harm come to their leader.

“We have braved all sorts of injustice and torture but when it comes to Khan sahab, we say he is our red line,” he added.

Khan rose to power with what observers widely said was the support of the military and won the 2018 general election more than two decades after he formed his party. The former PM denies ever having military support and the military, which has ruled the country for more than three decades of its 75-year history, says it does not get involved in civilian politics.