© Reuters. Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan chant slogans, as they guard the entrance of Khan’s house, in Lahore, Pakistan March 17, 2023. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro
By Mubasher Bukhari and Asif Shahzad
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – Scores of supporters of Imran Khan barricaded his home on Friday to protect him as the former Pakistani prime minister waited to hear a ruling on whether security forces could launch an operation to arrest him for failing to show up in court.
Ahead of the court decision, a tense calm prevailed in Khan’s Lahore neighbourhood which earlier this week was the scene of pitched battles between hundreds of supporters and security forces that had tried to force the former international cricketer to attend a hearing in a case in which he is accused of selling state gifts given to him while he was prime minister.
Khan denies the charges.
Even though there was no police presence on Friday, witnesses said Khan’s supporters, armed with batons and iron rods, remained stationed outside his home.
Khan’s aide Fawad Chadhury said his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, had filed another plea on Friday at the Islamabad High Court to suspend the warrant after a lower court rejected a similar plea a day earlier.
“Our supporters are outside Imran Khan’s house but I don’t think matters will become extreme,” he added.
Police are waiting for the court ruling on the warrant before taking any action, the provincial government’s information minister Amir Mir said.
The violence on Tuesday and Wednesday, in which protesters hurled petrol bombs and security forces used tear gas and water cannon, had raised fears of a new political stand-off in nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is already grappling with an economic crisis.
The arrest warrant was issued by a court in Islamabad when Khan, 70, failed to appear before it over charges that he unlawfully sold state gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries when he was prime minister from 2018 to 2022.
The Election Commission of Pakistan had found him guilty and barred Khan from holding public office for one parliamentary term.
Khan has said he was willing to submit a written undertaking that he would voluntarily appear before the court on Saturday, but the court said such an undertaking was insufficient. It was unclear whether the court hearing on Friday would take this undertaking into consideration.
The legal proceedings against Khan began after he was ousted from office in a parliamentary vote early last year. Since then, he has been demanding a snap election and holding nationwide protests, and was shot and wounded in one of those rallies.
Current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has rejected Khan’s demands, saying an election would be held as scheduled later this year.