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A Pakistani court orders former Prime Minister Imran Khan to be released on bail

Policemen escort Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan as he arrives at the high court in Islamabad on Friday.
Aamir Qureshi
AFP via Getty Images
Policemen escort Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan as he arrives at the high court in Islamabad on Friday.

Updated May 12, 2023 at 12:50 PM ET

ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani court has granted former Prime Minister Imran Khan bail in multiple cases against him, allowing for his release following his dramatic arrest earlier this week.

In one session on Friday, a two-judge bench of the Islamabad High Court granted two weeks' bail to Khan in a corruption case. It was that same case which led to Khan's arrest by paramilitary forces from the court itself. They smashed open an office to extricate him.

In another session on Friday, a judge granted Khan bail until next Wednesday in a series of cases filed against him since his arrest on Tuesday.

Khan's arrest has triggered protests across the country, including unprecedented civilian attacks on installations belonging to the police and army, the country's most powerful institution. Protesters broke down a gate leading to the army's main headquarters, and set fire to a corps commander's house in Lahore.

Khan told reporters in the courtroom on Friday that he believed Pakistan's army chief was to blame for his troubles and said the chief was effectively ruling the country. "We are being run by one man — the army chief," Khan told NPR.

He said he believed security forces would try arrest him to ensure his disqualification from elections, and alleged that there were plans to assassinate him. Khan was shot in the leg during a rally in November, in what he says was an attempt to kill him.

"They know that in any election — everyone knows we will win. They are petrified that if I come in, I will hold them accountable," he said. "They're holding the whole country to ransom."

The military did not immediately respond to Khan's accusations, but allegations of this sort have previously gotten Khan in trouble.

Following similar claims Khan made last weekend, when he named a serving intelligence officer, an army spokesman said in a statement that Khan had "leveled highly irresponsible and baseless allegations against a serving senior military officer without any evidence" and described his claims as "extremely unfortunate, deplorable and unacceptable."

The next day, Khan was arrested.

On Thursday, Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that Tuesday's arrest was "unlawful" and ordered Khan to be released immediately.

"Government critics will hail this judicial activism as proof that democracy is still alive," says Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Center. "But it also means we are seeing two parallel confrontations play out — the main one between Khan and the state, but also one between the Supreme Court and the state. Against the backdrop of the political chaos playing out, these two simultaneous clashes risk exacerbating Pakistan's political instability in a big way."

Government and opposition leaders had begun talks shortly before Khan's arrest to try to reduce tensions, Kugelman says. But now, he says, "The gloves are off on both sides."

Pakistan's coalition government was dismayed by Friday's bail ruling, accusing the courts of bias toward their rival. One coalition party announced it would hold a sit-in before the Supreme Court on Monday.

"The judiciary has become an iron shield for Imran Khan," said Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in a Cabinet address picked up by local media.

Sharif accused Khan of tipping the country toward chaos by claiming for months, without evidence, that the United States was behind his ouster from power in April last year. Khan has since said that he believes Pakistan's military chief at the time, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, somehow convinced the Biden administration to remove him from power.

Khan, 70, was ousted in a no-confidence motion in Parliament after Bajwa signaled that the army no longer supported Khan's government. But the coalition government that replaced him is deeply unpopular, and the country has lurched from one crisis to another, including an unraveling economy and soaring inflation that has left millions on the verge of starvation.

Khan still faces multiple corruption charges, which he and his supporters characterize as "politically motivated." Conviction would disqualify him from running in elections due later this year.

Following protesters' attacks on its installations, the military accused what it called "evil elements" of inciting the attacks and said protesters wanted to push Pakistan into "a civil war."

Security forces have since detained Khan's top aides, including his former foreign minister, information minister and finance minister. On Friday, Khan's party said security forces detained one of Khan's most prominent female allies, the former human rights minister, Shireen Mazari.

Hundreds of Khan supporters have also been rounded up, and hospital workers say eight protesters have died in clashes.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.
Abdul Sattar