A global rights organization has accused Pakistani police of using "abusive measures" in an escalating confrontation with former prime minister Imran Khan's supporters amid a worsening political environment within the nuclear-armed country.
Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that police had charged protesters with batons and detained them under sweeping counterterrorism laws.
"The use of Pakistan's vague and overbroad anti-terrorism provisions against opposition protesters is very worrying," said Patricia Gossman, the associate Asia director at the U.S.-based watchdog, in a statement.
She urged Pakistani authorities to charge protesters under "appropriate" laws if they believed that Khan or his supporters' actions had resulted in violence or constituted a real threat to public safety.
Thousands of supporters of Khan's opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party have clashed with police over the past week outside a courthouse in the capital, Islamabad, and near his residence in the eastern city of Lahore.
The clashes erupted after authorities attempted to force the opposition leader to appear in court in connection with various cases brought against him.
Police have fired tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets against protesters and charged them with batons, prompting PTI workers to attack law enforcement personnel with sticks and stones. The violence has injured dozens of people on both sides and damaged several vehicles.
Authorities have since charged Khan, 70, and scores of his party members with terrorism offenses, rioting, assault on police and criminal intimidation.
Fawad Chaudhry, a central PTI leader, claimed in a tweet Tuesday that an ongoing police crackdown on his party has led to the arrest of more than 500 party workers.
Police have confirmed rounding up more than 200 protesters in Islamabad and scores of others in Lahore, saying raids were being carried out to arrest more in connection with the clashes.
"All sides should display restraint and respect for human rights and the rule of law," Gossman said. "It is vitally important for the police to respect the right to the peaceful assembly while holding those responsible for unlawful violence to account."
Khan, the cricket hero-turned-prime minister, was removed from office in a parliamentary no-trust vote last April, toppling his nearly four-year-old government and paving the way for the then-opposition leader, Shehbaz Sharif, to become the prime minister of a new coalition government.
The deposed Pakistani leader has since been demanding a new election, calling his removal illegal. He has held massive protest rallies across the country to promote his case, with thousands of people attending the gatherings. Recent surveys indicate Khan is the most popular politician in Pakistan.
Khan was shot and wounded during a protest rally last November. He accused Sharif and an unnamed army general, among others, of plotting to kill him. Since then, he has urged the courts to allow him to appear virtually in dozens of cases brought against him — due to the threats on his life.
Sharif has rejected Khan's demand for early elections, saying they would be held as scheduled later this year when the current parliament completes its mandatory five-year term.
Khan's party says the government has brought 97 legal cases against him since his ouster, including sedition, terrorism, blasphemy, and corruption charges. He appeared before a provincial high court in Lahore Tuesday and secured protective bail in fresh terrorism cases against him, his lawyers said.
The PTI chief rejects the allegations, calling them "fake" and part of alleged efforts by Sharif and the military to have him arrested or disqualified from national politics in the wake of his party's popularity and sweeping victories in recent elections.
The government denies Khan's charges. Some ministers have lately even called for outlawing the PTI.
“Gang of Militants"
On Monday Sharif chaired a meeting of his coalition partners where Khan's party was denounced as a "gang of militants."
A post-meeting statement said the government could not tolerate "this enmity against the state" and decided "that action would be taken according to the law," the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan news agency reported Tuesday.
Pakistan's parliament has been convened for a special joint session on Wednesday where lawmakers would "take important decisions" to enforce the state's authority, the news agency reported, without elaborating.
The ousted prime minister launched his PTI (which translates to Pakistan Movement of Justice in the local language) 25 years ago to enter Pakistani politics after leading the national team in winning the 1992 Cricket World Cup and establishing an internationally recognized charity hospital for cancer patients in Lahore.
Political tensions have risen as the country of about 220 million people is on the brink of financial default, with inflation rising to historical levels and foreign exchange reserves sinking to record lows.