June 2, 2023

Islamabad — There was a major turn of events in Pakistan Thursday as the country’s highest court ordered the immediate release of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and declared his Tuesday arrest illegal. Major cities were paralyzed this week by violent protests and riots sparked by the arrest of Khan, a national cricket legend-turned political opposition leader, on corruption charges. Khan remains hugely popular in the country of 230 million despite being forced out office last year with a no-confidence vote in Pakistan’s parliament, and his arrest has infuriated his supporters.

The streets were quieter Thursday after two days of violence that left at least eight people dead. But the nuclear-armed Asian nation remained on tenterhooks after most leaders of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) political party were taken into custody. The nation’s powerful army and current prime minister, who’s backed by the military, warned protesters Wednesday that any further unrest would be dealt with harshly.

APTOPIX Pakistan Imran Khan
A supporter of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan throws a stone at police officers near a pile of burning tires during clashes in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 10, 2023.


Here’s what to know about the chaos, how Pakistan got here, and what may come next:

Pakistan’s Supreme Court orders Khan’s release

Pakistan’s Supreme Court heard a petition Thursday from Khan’s lawyer, who demanded the politician’s release and called his Tuesday arrest illegal. The court expressed displeasure over the way Khan was taken into custody in another courtroom earlier in the week, and it ordered authorities to bring him before the high court bench within an hour.

When Khan was brought in, the court declared his Tuesday arrest unlawful for the way in which it was carried out, and then quickly ordered the 70-year-old politician’s  immediate release. 

Khan was detained in a lower court Tuesday after appearing on corruption charges brought by Islamabad police. As he showed up in court, dozens of agents from the National Accountability Bureau, backed by paramilitary troops, stormed the courtroom, breaking windows after Khan’s guards refused to open the door.

Amid speculation ahead of his appearance Thursday that the Supreme Court could order his release, national Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb told reporters in Islamabad that it would be “unfair” for the top court to intervene is such a manner. Aurangzeb noted the violence instigated by Khan’s supporters this week and said a release order would be tantamount to a “license to kill to everyone.” 

Who is Imran Khan?

Imran Khan, 70, is was the Prime Minister of Pakistan for four years, until his ouster in November 2022. He remains the leader of the main opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which means Movement for Justice in English.

Khan established the party after retiring from a glittering career as the captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team. He led the team to win the Cricket World Cup in 1992, cementing his status as a national hero.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan injured in shooting


Disillusioned by widespread corruption in Pakistani politics, he left the sporting world to set up his political party in 1998. A decade later, he was finally elected as prime minister in 2018, enjoying the backing of the country’s all-powerful military. But he has since fallen spectacularly out of favor with the army’s leaders, and was voted out by parliament last year.

Why was Imran Khan arrested?

Ironically, having been an ardent campaigner against corruption and bribery, Khan now faces a series of graft and corruption cases.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told reporters Khan was arrested this week on the orders of the country’s main anticorruption body, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). He said Khan and his wife Bushra were suspected of receiving land worth around $24.7 million from a developer that had been charged with money laundering by British authorities.

Sanaullah said U.K. authorities had returned $240 million to Pakistan in connection with the case, and that Khan was accused of returning that money to the land developer instead of keeping it in the national treasury when he was the premier.

Khan vehemently denies all wrongdoing and insists all the charges against him — which include more than 100 separate cases brought against him since his 2022 ouster — are a ruse to keep him from contesting elections scheduled to be held in November this year.

Khan is the seventh Pakistani prime minister in the country’s history to be arrested on corruption charges.

What happens next, and why does it matter?

The confrontation between Khan’s supporters and the ruling coalition government is likely to intensify again ahead of his next court appearance on May 17, when his pre-trial detention will be reviewed. If the judge decides to release Khan, he and the PTI may be emboldened and he would likely return to his home in the city of Lahore, where his supporters could more effectively try to shield him from another arrest.

If the political turmoil around Khan continues, it could derail the national elections planned for November. 

A policeman holding a machine gun walks past a burning car during a protest by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party activists and supporters of former Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran over the arrest of their leader, in Peshawar, May 10, 2023.


Pakistan’s military has ruled the country for the majority of its 75-year history, and most observers believe the army generals still pull the strings of its civilian government. Many Pakistanis fear the army could move to overthrow the civilian government and impose martial law if the unrest continues and military facilities again come under attack.

The impoverished country is mired in a deep and deepening economic crisis, meanwhile, with food inflation running above 36%. Many experts believe the government is on the verge of defaulting on its international debt payments, which could trigger a complete economic meltdown. The value of the Pakistani rupee hit an all-time low against the U.S. dollar Wednesday, and it continued its precipitous fall as trading began on interbank markets Thursday.

The instability sparked by Khan’s arrest has added to a sense of impending disaster in the country, and the immediate question is how the military will respond to any new flare-up of the protests. 

If the generals take a heavy-handed approach to the unprecedented challenge to their power, it could lead to a wider internal conflict, and a stability crisis in a nuclear-armed nation that has tense relations with its nuclear-armed neighbor India would be a cause for concern around the world.

CBS News’ Tucker Reals contributed to this report.

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