Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan called for nationwide protests on Friday after dozens of activists from his party were arrested, adding to political deadlock ahead of his plans to shut down the capital next week. Khan, a former cricket hero, plans to stage major protests to paralyse the capital on Wednesday in what he described as a final push to force Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign over corruption allegations. The rising tensions have come at an awkward time for Sharif, with relations between his ruling PML-N party and Pakistan’s powerful military strained over a newspaper leak about a security meeting that angered army officials.
Police on Thursday swooped on an indoor youth rally by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in Islamabad, beating activists with batons and detaining about 40 people. Police said the youth rally contravened a city order issued hours earlier to ban all public gatherings in the capital ahead of next week’s protests. “Police manhandled our women and our boys. Because of that Imran Khan has called for nationwide protests,” a spokeswoman from PTI’s media team said on Friday. A top administrative official in Rawalpindi, close to Islamabad, has also banned protests in the city. Khan has vowed to contest orders banning public gatherings in court but has hinted his supporters would march on the capital next week regardless of what the judiciary decides.
Khan is also due to attend a rally for a political ally, Sheikh Rashid of the Awami Muslim League, on Friday afternoon in Rawalpindi. PTI members said they would march towards the Rawalpindi rally site in the early afternoon. Khan has warned officials that arresting him would only enrage his supporters and bolster his party’s resolve to lock down Islamabad. A Reuters photographer said authorities have blocked main roads leading to the Rawalpindi rally with shipping containers. The rally site has also been obstructed by trucks and containers, blocking PTI supporters from gathering en masse.
Officials, however, appear to be resolute that the ban will be enforced, setting PTI on a collision course with authorities. Islamabad Deputy Commissioner Mushtaq Ahmed, the city’s top administrator, said PTI would need a permission in the form of a “No Objection Certificate” (NOC) if they plan to host any event. “You need an NOC for anything – whether its a media function or a marriage function. Even for a birthday party of more than five people, you need an NOC,” he told Reuters.
Khan, who led a weeks-long occupation that paralysed the government quarter of Islamabad in 2014 after rejecting Sharif’s runaway election win, has said the new protests would bring a million people to the streets. He has said that sit-ins would force the closure of schools, public offices and the main international airport. At the centre of Khan’s latest challenge to Sharif’s government are leaked documents from the Panama-based Mossack Fonseca law firm that appear to show that Sharif’s daughter and two sons owned offshore holding companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. Sharif’s family denies wrongdoing.
Holding offshore companies is not illegal in Pakistan, but Khan has implied the money was gained by corruption. Khan acknowledged in May that he used an offshore company to legally avoid paying British tax on a London property sale. The ruling party has dismissed Khan’s plans to shut down Islamabad as a desperate move by a politician whose popularity is waning ahead of the next general election, likely to be held in May 2018.