Imran Khan to be released from custody in Pakistan, court rules

Pakistan’s ex-prime minister Imran Khan is to be freed from custody, a day after the Supreme Court ruled his dramatic arrest on corruption charges was illegal.

Judges granted Mr Khan protected bail, meaning he can not be re-arrested on those charges for two weeks.

The court also ordered he could not be arrested on any charges filed after last Tuesday until 17 May.

Despite the rulings, the corruption charges against Mr Khan still stand.

The 70-year-old – who was arrested on Tuesday as he arrived at a courthouse in Islamabad – pleaded not guilty to the charges when a judge formally indicted him with corruption for the first time in the dozens of cases he faces.

Officials say Mr Khan unlawfully sold state gifts during his premiership, in a case brought by Pakistan’s Election Commission.

He remained at court after the hearing on Friday seeking preventive bail against other charges, which he told the BBC included counts of terrorism, sedition and blasphemy.

The conviction would disqualify the former international cricket star – and Pakistan’s prime minister from 2018 to 2022 – from standing for office, possibly for life. Elections are due later this year.

Mr Khan had arrived at the hearing under heavy armed guard and greeted supporters with a single raised fist.

Speaking during Friday’s hearing, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial said the arrest was unlawful because it took place on court premises.

He ordered that the “whole process” of Mr. Khan’s arrest “needs to be backtracked”.

The dramatic saga has significantly escalated tensions between Mr. Khan and Pakistan’s powerful military.

Many analysts believe Mr. Khan’s election win in 2018 happened with the help of the military, which both parties denied.

But he later fell out with the army. After a series of defections, and amid mounting economic crises, he lost his majority in parliament.

Since being ousted less than four years into his term, he has become one of the military’s most vocal critics, and analysts say the army’s popularity has fallen.

And his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party says the charges against him – which relate to gifts given to him by foreign leaders while he served as prime minister – are politically motivated.

His dramatic arrest outside the courthouse on Tuesday sparked outrage among Mr Khan’s supporters.

At least 10 people were killed and some 2,000 arrested as unrest swept the country. Those protests included an attack at a military commander’s home residence in Lahore, which was set on fire.

While this week’s violence petered out after the army was deployed in Islamabad and other areas, such as Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the country remains on edge.

There was a large security presence at the court on Friday.

Speaking to the BBC before his bail hearing, Mr Khan said he feared immediate re-arrest once released, and urged authorities against a move as “there might be huge reaction which will go out of control. Because mobs are out of control, no-one controls mobs.”

“How am I supposed to control what happens afterwards?” he told the BBC.

Critics say the PTI has been fuelling unrest through social media posts calling for protesters to take to the streets, and judges told Mr Khan that he must condemn the violence and tell supporters to stop.

Mr Khan told the BBC he and his party had only called for peaceful protest and asked for supporters to “act within the constitution”.

“We have never broken the law. Even now, when I tell them to protest I say ‘They should be peaceful protests’,” he said inside the courtroom on Friday.

Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who took power after Khan was ousted, criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling to free Khan in a cabinet speech aired on state television.

He alleged that judges had favoured Imran Khan, and their ruling had caused “the death of justice in Pakistan”.

He further criticized Mr Khan and his party for their inflammatory language, and encouraged protesters to take to the streets.

“Imran Khan has divided the nation,” he said.

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