Police lobbed tear gas and detained a number of supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan after tens of thousands of people hit the streets to hold rallies just days ahead of national elections in Pakistan.
Supporters of Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party organised nationwide rallies with massive turnouts, some of which escalated into violence following a crackdown by police claiming they were conducted without proper permissions.
The supporters of Mr Khan renewed their pledge to vote for his candidates in the 8 February national elections and raised slogans against the caretaker government’s attempts to keep his PTI party out of the 2024 elections.
Cricket star turned politician Mr Khan has been in jail since August 2023 on corruption charges which he says are politically motivated. His party has faced significant obstacles leading up to the 8 February vote, including being barred from holding public gatherings, having its party symbol forcibly changed and seeing key candidates and officials either disqualified or jailed.
Efforts to stage mass virtual rallies have also being stymied by the government through internet shutdowns.
In the country’s largest city of Karachi, his supporters led a huge rally on Sunday with a convoys of vehicles passing through the streets adorned with party flags, as supporters chanted slogans.
The situation turned tense after police used tear gas and batons to disperse the rally. More than two dozen people were detained as some clashed with officers, according to the Associated Press.
Pictures and videos online also showed some people clashing with police and purportedly hitting police personnel with sticks as others tried to help the officers.
Visuals from Karachi!
PTI Rallies have begun across Karachi!
— PTI (@PTIofficial) January 28, 2024
Police are arresting peaceful people at Karachi, during PTI’s rally.
These are visuals of free and fair elections pic.twitter.com/xD2axFzWx0
— PTI (@PTIofficial) January 28, 2024
Senior police superintendent Sajid Siddozai said workers from the PTI party organised the rally without obtaining permission from authorities and blocked the road.
"When police officials attempted to negotiate and persuade them not to block the road, they attacked the police," he said. "This resulted in injuries to five police officials, including a female officer. One of the wounded is in a critical condition."
The PTI denounced the police crackdown on the rally in Karachi as “one of the most shameful acts”.
PTI worker Waheedullah Shah said Mr Khan had called for rallies across the country and that Sunday’s event in Karachi was peaceful. "But police dispersed our rally and arrested our workers," Mr Shah said. "We will not be deterred by such tactics. We stand by Khan and will always support him."
Rallies were also held in the cities of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Faisalabad, and other major cities on Sunday with police action reported in some parts.
The election campaign has been lacklustre ahead of the polls, already beset by accusations of pre-election rigging and assertions of military interference in the electoral process to influence the results. The military has yet to address these claims.
Pakistan‘s independent human rights commission has said there is little chance of a free and fair parliamentary election next month. It also expressed concern about authorities rejecting the candidacies of Mr Khan and senior figures from his party.
The PTI leadership on Monday released its election manifesto, promising a number of of constitutional amendments, including the direct election of the prime minister and shortening of the tenure of both houses of parliament.
Three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan from a decades-long exile last year, is anticipated to secure the majority of seats for his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has been more active on the campaign trail, endeavouring to attract Mr Khan’s fanbase with his youthful appeal, while presenting himself as a viable third choice between the battling PML-N and PTI.
Earlier this month, Mr Khan’s party suffered a setback following a contentious court ruling that barred the PTI from using its iconic cricket bat logo as an election symbol on ballot papers.
Election symbols in the country hold particular significance as they help identify candidates in rural areas, which historically have had high illiteracy rates.
It comes after many months in which Pakistan’s news channels and media have been prohibited from using Mr Khan’s name, diminishing his ability to reach the public.
Meanwhile, the country’s journalists, political commentators and bloggers have said they were summoned by the Federal Investigation Agency on charges of running a “malicious social media campaign” against Supreme Court judges.
The rights groups have accused the caretaker government of prime minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar of increased censorship and crackdown on freedom of speech ahead of the elections.
“An investigation is underway,” said Murtaza Solangi, the caretaker information minister, on Sunday.
“We are monitoring hundreds of accounts, and action will be taken against them,” he said adding that 500 social media accounts have been identified that participated in the anti-judiciary campaign.
After his ouster with a no-confidence vote in April 2022, Mr Khan has been hit with more than 170 criminal cases, with charges ranging from contempt of court to terrorism and inciting violence.
He previously told The Independent that he faces a threat to his life, but insisted on contesting elections. He was finally disqualified from running for public office for at least five years following his conviction in a corruption case last August.