Former prime minister Imran Khan has been charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act which marks the latest escalation in a bitter power feud between the ousted leader and the current coalition government. The criminal complaint is based on comments that Khan made that were perceived to threaten a judge and police but is clearly politically motivated. An arrest could lead to political violence.
Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act is broad, often employed as a catch-all, and extends far beyond the popular understanding of what constitutes “terrorism.” So far Khan managed to secure pre-arrest bail until Thursday. After that time he could face arrest which would likely spark mass protests. Pakistan is currently facing widespread flooding and an economic crisis that has required bailouts from the IMF and regional countries. Factional politics in Pakistan are stronger than ever despite these collective crises.
Imprisonment of opposition political leaders is not an uncommon occurrence in Pakistan and members of the current government faced jail time during Imran Khan’s tenure. But in the current political environment an arrest of Imran Khan would mark an inflection point with the potential to turn violent.
It also fuels Khan’s populist message which is rooted in the notion that the current government’s power was won sneakily rather than through popular mandate. Khan was removed from office in April via a no confidence vote in the National Assembly. Since then he has railed against what he characterizes as a regime change conspiracy. An arrest would derail Khan’s campaigning but may also be a boon for his popularity.