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Protests erupted in Pakistan after arrest of former prime minister


It's been a dramatic day in Pakistan. There have been protests in several major cities after security forces detained the former prime minister, Imran Khan, and took him away in a security vehicle. Khan supporters shut down roads and staged demonstrations outside military installations. That's a rare scene in Pakistan. And authorities shut down Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. With us is our correspondent in Islamabad, Diaa Hadid. Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi there, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: The big drama, I understand, began today with Imran Khan's arrest, the former prime minister. What happened?

HADID: Imran Khan was in a courtroom. He was waiting for his biometric details to be processed. He was there in the context of a series of cases he's been enmeshed in. And that's when the video footage begins. And you can see dozens of khaki-clad forces, and they're smashing the windows of the courtroom with batons. And you can hear them here in this tape.


HADID: And then the next video shows Imran Khan being rushed into a vehicle.

PFEIFFER: Why was he arrested?

HADID: Well, the interior minister says it was on the orders of an anti-corruption court, and it surrounds a case involving a land deal and money paid to one of Pakistan's most powerful businessmen. But Khan and his supporters say this case, like dozens of cases filed against him, are politically motivated. They say it's a way for Pakistan's army to keep Khan enmeshed in legal trouble. The thing is that Khan and the military have been on a collision course since he was ousted from power last April. And that happened after the army's signal that they wouldn't support his government anymore. But tensions really escalated this week after Khan doubled down on allegations that a serving intelligence officer was behind an assassination attempt against him last November. And to add insult to injury, Khan keeps referring to this officer as Dirty Harry, like from the Clint Eastwood movies.

PFEIFFER: That sounds like quite a provocation of the Army or the military. Was it his arrest that triggered these protests?

HADID: It was. Khan has many hardcore loyal supporters, and they rushed onto the streets to demonstrate as news broke of his arrest. And in one video that his supporters shared, you can see a woman, and she dramatically throws down her headscarf before police in riot gear, and they grab her. And that appears to trigger dozens of protesters to rush in. And scenes like this appeared to unfold across Pakistan in these videos that were being shared by Khan's media team. But the most remarkable ones showed dozens of Khan's supporters rushing to Pakistan's military headquarters that are just outside of Islamabad. And these were men, some women, and they smashed open the complex gate. And in the videos that people shared, you can hear the protesters shouting, Allahu akbar, or, God is great. And in this context, it's to denote victory. Have a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar.

HADID: That was a rare and jaw-dropping moment in Pakistan because here, the military is the country's most powerful and feared institution. We managed to find one of the guys who filmed this incident, and my colleague Abdul Sattar translates for him. Have a listen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) There are many protests in Pakistan, but they happen in front of other buildings. Nobody can imagine that they can stage a protest in front of an Army office and especially GHQ. Nobody can imagine that he or she can stand in front of GHQ protesting.

HADID: GHQ is the acronym for Pakistan's military headquarters.

PFEIFFER: Diaa, any sense of where things might go from here?

HADID: There's concern that tomorrow might bring on more violence. Schools have announced that they'll be closed. So has the U.S. embassy, the German embassy and the EU Mission. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are still largely cut off. And that suggests authorities are trying to close down ways for people to organize and communicate. One government official has issued a statement saying Khan supporters had crossed, quote, "a red line." That suggests potentially arrests are in the offing. But the military so far hasn't commented.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Islamabad. Thanks, Diaa.

HADID: Thank you, Sacha.


Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.