Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered that former Prime Minister Imran Khan be released from custody on Thursday, offering a major victory for the onetime leader who was arrested this week as part of a corruption inquiry, and escalating a political crisis that has engulfed the country.
In its ruling, the court declared that the authorities had unlawfully arrested Mr. Khan. His lawyers had challenged the legality of the arrest in the court on Thursday morning and requested his release.
The court’s decision is a significant political and legal win for Mr. Khan, whose supporters have flooded the streets in droves since his arrest on Tuesday. It also sets up a direct clash between the Supreme Court and Pakistan’s military, which is widely considered to be the driving force behind his arrest.
Mr. Khan, the former international cricket star turned populist politician, was arrested in connection with a corruption case involving the transfer of real estate — charges that he denies. His detention set off violent protests across the country as thousands of his supports came to his defense, attacking military installations and clashing with security forces.
The public’s direct confrontations with Pakistan’s powerful military — which for decades has been an invisible hand wielding power behind the government — was unlike anything the country has experienced in recent memory.
Tensions between Mr. Khan and military leaders had been growing since he was ousted as prime minister in a vote of no confidence in April last year. In recent months, thousands of supporters have attended his political gatherings, at which he called for Pakistan to hold early general elections. Supporters have also camped out outside his home in Lahore, the country’s second largest city, to effectively serve as his personal body guards.
Mr. Khan is facing dozens of corruption charges, which he and his supporters have characterized as a misuse of the justice system by the government, led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, and the military to keep him out of politics.
Over the past year, Mr. Khan has rallied his supporters around accusations that the military orchestrated his ouster and, most recently, that a senior Pakistani military intelligence general was behind a shooting that wounded him in November.
On Monday, military officials offered a sharp rebuke to those accusations, and the authorities arrested him the next day. Soon after, protesters flooded the streets, setting aflame and ransacking military buildings across the country — violent scenes that would once be considered unimaginable in a nation where few have dared to directly challenge the military.
In response, the authorities shut off the internet and cellphone networks across most of Pakistan, deployed the army to at least two provinces and arrested more than 3,000 protesters. The authorities also arrested more than a dozen key leaders in Mr. Khan’s political party, including his close aide and former information minister, Fawad Chaudhry.
The military’s media wing released a statement late Wednesday avowing a swift and “severe” response to protesters who attacked military installations.
“The facilitators, planners and political rioters involved in these activities have been identified and now, strict action will be taken against them,” the statement read. “No one can be allowed to incite people and take the law into their hands.”
Zia ur-Rehman and Salman Masood contributed reporting.
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