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Pakistan government trying to arrest or disqualify me: Imran Khan

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused the Pakistani government of barring him from running in the elections after dozens of his supporters were arrested and injured in a police crackdown at an election rally in Lahore.

Khan called a meeting of his Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the eastern city, the capital of Punjab province, after police used tear gas and water cannon against his supporters for defying a government ban on public gatherings defied.

“The government and its backers are terrified of elections because so far my party has won 30 out of 37 midterm elections in the past eight months,” Khan told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.

“They want to arrest or disqualify me because they are afraid (of the fact) that my party is one of the most popular in Pakistan’s history,” he said from his hometown in Lahore.

The PTI was to hold a meeting to kick off the campaign for the April 30 provincial elections. But authorities banned the event just hours before it was due to begin “to prevent any untoward incident,” local media reported.

“The police had given permission and approved the route of the demonstration, but this morning the permission was suddenly withdrawn. A heavy contingent of police was deployed and people attending a peaceful gathering were hit with tear gas grenades and water cannons,” the former prime minister said.

Police officers detain a supporter of former Prime Minister Imran Khan during clashes ahead of an election campaign rally in Lahore, Pakistan, March 8, 2023 (Mohsin Raza/Reuters)

Khan has claimed party supporter Ali Bilal was killed while in police custody. Al Jazeera could not confirm the veracity of the claim and police have yet to confirm the death.

Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, called the police’s crackdown on opposition supporters “unnecessary and brutal”.

“There was a massive police effort to prevent PTI employees from attending the meeting.

“There are all indications that the federal government is trying to postpone the elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces,” Gul said from Islamabad.

Opinion polls in Punjab, as well as neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – scheduled for April 30 – were announced following the dissolution of the provincial assemblies of both regions, which together account for 70 percent of the country’s population.

The two assemblies were controlled by Khan’s PTI party. Khan had called for their dissolution in a bid to force early national elections in Pakistan, scheduled for October.

The government of his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, has rejected Khan’s demands and says the vote will take place later this year as scheduled.

“It is clear that the government does not want an election,” Khan told Al Jazeera, adding that he turned down the rally fearing the lives of his supporters were in danger.

Police officers arrest a supporter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore.
Police officers arrest a supporter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore (photo KM Chaudary/AP)

‘My life is in danger’

In April last year, 70-year-old Khan became the only Pakistani prime minister to be removed from power by a vote of no confidence in parliament. He faces a slew of cases against him ranging from “terrorism” and attempted murder to money laundering since he lost power.

Khan dismissed all the matters as “frivolous” and said the allegations are “just another way to get me out of running in the election”.

“Is just a question about how you handle 76 cases – how many lawsuits do you do?” Khan stressed that he had to stop appearing in court because of injuries sustained in an assassination attempt.

“For four months I had three bullets in my legs that prevented me from walking,” he said.

Supporters of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan take cover as police fire tear gas grenades.
Supporters of former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan take cover as police fire tear gas canisters to disperse them in Lahore (KM Chaudary/AP Photo)

Khan has been living in Lahore since November when he was shot in the leg by a gunman during a protest rally. Since then, he has traveled to Islamabad only once – last week – to face trial in other cases against him.

Khan said he repeatedly asked for security during his court hearings, but it was never granted.

“My life is under threat because the people who tried to kill me are in power… The question is how do I campaign and create a safe and secure environment? How do I go to court? I have appeared in court three times and unfortunately there was just no protection there,” he added.

Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif has denied that he was behind the attack on Khan.

On Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court suspended an arrest warrant against Khan in a case related to the alleged illegal buying and selling of gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries while in office.

A single trial court ordered police not to arrest Khan until March 13. The court also ordered the former prime minister to appear before the relevant court on March 13 in the foreign gifts case.

Police attempted to arrest Khan from his residence in Lahore on Sunday, but the cricketer turned politician evaded them.

Police officers fire tear gas grenades to disperse supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore.
Police officers fire tear gas canisters to disperse supporters of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore (KM Chaudary/AP Photo)