A Pakistani court on Thursday extended former premier Imran Khan’s protection from arrest through the end of the month, officials said, after police filed terrorism charges against the country’s popular opposition leader.
The court protected Khan from arrest until Sept. 1 over accusations that during a speech over the weekend, he threatened police officers and a female judge. The developments before the court relief for Khan had raised fears of violent clashes between police and Khan, who is leading mass rallies and seeking snap elections after being ousted. The government says elections will be held as scheduled next year.
On Thursday, Khan told reporters outside the court that he never threatened anyone.
He said the terrorism charges against him were politically motivated and that Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s government feared Khan’s growing popularity.
“You are making fun of Pakistan,” Khan said of Sharif’s government.
Later, Khan went to another court where a criminal case was registered against him this week on charges of defying a ban on staging rallies in the capital, Islamabad. He was protected from arrest in that case as well until Sept. 7.
Earlier, Khan’s lawyer requested the anti-terrorism court to protect Khan from arrest. Babar Awan said the terrorism charges filed against Khan were “an act of revenge.”
Arriving at court, Khan was asked to walk toward the courtroom as ordinary suspects do.
Hundreds of Khan’s supporters gathered outside the court building, chanting slogans against Sharif’s government. Demonstrators said Khan is being politically victimized by Sharif’s government. Later, Khan left the court for his home on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Sharif replaced Khan in April when he was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament. Legal experts say Khan could face from several months to 14 years in prison, the equivalent of a life sentence if he is found guilty by the court during the trial which has not started yet against him on the terrorism charges.
Thursday’s appearance of Khan before an anti-terrorism tribunal amid tight security was the latest development in the saga between Pakistan’s government and Khan, who has been holding mass rallies, seeking to return to power.
Khan is also to appear before the Islamabad High Court on Aug. 31 to face contempt proceedings on charges of threatening a judge. His conviction, in this case, will mean his disqualification from politics for life under Pakistani law. No convicted person can run for office.
It is the second time that Khan — a former cricket star turned Islamist politician — faces contempt charges. After elections in 1993, he was summoned but pardoned by the Supreme Court after describing the conduct of the judiciary as “shameful” and saying it did not ensure free and fair elections.
Legal experts say Khan has limited options and could avoid a conviction if he apologizes for his remarks against Judge Zeba Chaudhry, when he told her to “get ready for it, we will also take action against you.”
Khan made that critical comment against judge Chaudhry after she allowed police to interrogate Gill, who is the chief of staff at Khan’s party. Gill was arrested earlier this month for allegedly attempting to incite soldiers to revolt against the top military leadership. Gill was sent to jail the previous day, pending trial.
Since his ouster, Khan has alleged — without providing evidence — that Pakistan’s powerful military took part in a U.S. plot to oust him. Washington, the Pakistani military and the government of Khan’s successor, Shahbaz Sharif, have all denied the allegation.
Khan came to power promising to break the pattern of family rule in Pakistan. His opponents contend he was elected with help from the powerful military, which has ruled the country for half of its 75-year history. Since his ouster, Khan has also demanded early elections and vowed to oust Sharif’s government through “pressure from the people.”