Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused the Pakistani government of trying get him out of the way to contest the elections after dozens of his supporters were arrested and injured in a police crackdown on an election rally in Lahore.
Khan called off a rally of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the eastern city, the capital of the Punjab province, after the police used tear gas and water cannon on his supporters for defying a government ban on public gathering.
“The government and its backers are petrified of elections because so far in the last eight months, out of the 37 byelections, my party has won 30 out of them,” Khan told Al Jazeera on Tuesday.
“They want to either arrest or disqualify me because they are scared [of the fact] that my party is one of the most popular in Pakistan’s history,” he said from his residence in Lahore.
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The PTI was scheduled to hold a rally to kick off its campaigning for the provincial election set for April 30. But authorities banned the event just a few hours before it was due to start “to avert any untoward incident”, local media reported.
“Police had given permission and approved the route of the rally, but suddenly this morning the permission was taken away. Heavy contingent of police was deployed and people coming to attend peaceful rally were hit with tear gas shells and water cannon,” the former prime minister said.
Khan has claimed party supporter Ali Bilal was killed while in police custody. Al Jazeera could not confirm the veracity of the claim and the police have yet to confirm the death.
Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Center for Research and Security studies, called the police crackdown on opposition supporters as “unnecessary and brutal”.
“There was a massive police deployment to try to prevent PTI workers from attending the rally.
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“There are all the indications that the federal government is trying to delay the elections in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Gul said speaking from Islamabad.
Polls in Punjab, as well as in neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – due on April 30 – were announced after the dissolution of the provincial assemblies of both regions which together account for 70 percent of the country’s population.
The two assemblies were governed by Khan’s PTI party. Khan had called for their dissolution in a bid to force early national elections in Pakistan which are scheduled for October.
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The government of his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, has dismissed Khan’s demands, saying the vote will take place as scheduled later in the year.
“It is clear that the government does not want election,” Khan told Al Jazeera, adding that he called off the rally for fear that his supporters’ lives were in danger.
‘My life is under threat’
In April last year, Khan, 70, became the only Pakistani prime minister to be removed from power through a no-confidence vote in parliament. He is facing a slew of cases against him ranging from “terrorism” and attempted murder to money laundering since losing power.
Khan dismissed all the cases as “frivolous” saying that the accusations are “just one another way to have me out of the way to contest the elections”.
“Is just a question on how do you deal with 76 cases – how many court appearances do you make?” Khan said, stressing that he had to stop showing up to court due to injuries suffered from an assassination attempt.
“For four months I had three bullets in my legs so I couldn’t walk,” he said.
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 only once travelled to Islamabad – last week – for court appearances in other cases against him.
Khan said that he has repeatedly asked for security during his court appearances, but it was never granted.
“My life is under threat because the people who tried to assassinate me are in power … The question is how do I campaign and secure and safe environment? How do I go to courts? I made three court appearances and unfortunately there was just no protection there,” he added.
Pakistan Prime Minister Sharif has denied that he was behind the assassination attempt on Khan.
On Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court suspended an arrest warrant against Khan in a case related to the alleged illegal purchase and sale of gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries while he was in office.
A single-judge bench of the court ordered the police to not arrest Khan until March 13. The court also ordered the former prime minister to appear before the concerned court on March 13 in the foreign gifts case.
Police on Sunday tried to arrest Khan from his residence in Lahore, but the cricketer-turned-politician evaded them.