Pakistan's Supreme Court on Wednesday (25 May) allowed Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to hold its Azadi March protest in Islamabad and restrained Shehbaz Sharif's government from arresting its leaders and workers in connection with the march – saving the country from plunging into chaos again.
Last month, the Pak SC had intervened during the no-confidence motion against Imran Khan. In April this year, Khan had tried to block the no-confidence vote bought against him. The Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled his move to block a no-confidence vote was unconstitutional. It effectively ended the political quagmire Pakistan was heading toward then.
Shehbaz Sharif's government has said Imran Khan's march is illegal and accuses him of seeking to bring protesters to Islamabad with "evil intentions". Pakistan's Supreme Court, later in the day, ordered the government and Khan's party to negotiate on holding a peaceful public meeting in Islamabad.
PTI's long march towards Islamabad started on Wednesday. PTI Chairman Imran Khan, accompanied by hundreds of his supporters, lead the march mounting on a truck.
Imran Khan, ousted in a confidence vote last month after losing his partners in his coalition, has urged supporters to march on Islamabad and stay there until the new government is dissolved and a date for a fresh election is announced.
Addressing the participants of the Azadi March at Jinnah Avenue, the PTI chief warned that he will return to Islamabad along with millions of people if the government fails to announce the date for elections.
On Thursday (26 May), after giving a six-day ultimatum to the Pak government to announce the election date, PTI Chairman Imran Khan left for his Bani Gala residence. As PTI chief Imran Khan entered Pakistan's Islamabad in the early hours of Thursday and marched towards D-Chowk, the federal government authorised the deployment of the army in Red Zone.
Khan had rallied thousands of supporters to Islamabad, with plans to occupy sensitive parts of the capital until Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif gave in to his demand for new polls, but Khan told his followers on Thursday morning to step back, while delivering a fresh ultimatum.
"I'm giving you six days. You announce elections in six days," Khan said from atop a truck after he and thousands of his supporters reached the city.
His call for a march on Islamabad had prompted the government to seal off main roads leading to the capital. However, and hundreds reached the heart of the Pak capital, where they fought running battles with police over several hours before Imran Khan and main body of the rally entered the city.
Police fired tear gas and baton charged the vanguard of the protest march, and detained hundreds of protesters, who had set fire to trees, vehicles, shops, and a bus station on the main thoroughfare leading to parliament.
At least 18 police and paramilitary troops were wounded, said Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, after dozens of the protesters breached the last line of security outside the parliament. There were also clashes in several cities in Punjab province and the southern port city of Karachi.
Addressing the SC judges, he asked them to take notice of tactics used by the "imported government" to stop the masses from exercising their right to protest. He said there was a huge responsibility on the apex court judges and thanked them for taking notice of what happened on 25 May.
Clashes between Khan's supporters and police were reported in multiple cities in the past week. Pakistani police fired tear gas, baton-charged, and detained supporters of Khan to stop them from reaching the capital Islamabad to demand fresh elections.
Condemnation followed from all sections of Pakistan police actions to contain and impede the PTI's long march to Islamabad. The actions of the Pak government against the opposition have been deemed as "gangsterism".
In its order, the Pak SC instructed the authorities to not make "unnecessary use of force" and not raid the homes and offices of or arrest other PTI leaders and workers; and said that it hoped that the top PTI leadership would also tell the party supporters to not take the law in their hands.
The SC issued the orders after the PTI assured that its workers would not cause damage to public and private properties. While the court allowed the protest to continue on Srinagar Highway, it also said that "the flow of traffic must not be affected, the citizens must not be bothered, and the protestors should remain peaceful."
Meanwhile, Islamabad Chief Commissioner Amer Ali Ahmed assured the court that its orders will be followed whatever they may be. Authorities in Islamabad had started putting up blockades at roads leading to important installations, police said, and heavy contingents from police and paramilitary troops have also been deployed.
Islamabad's entry and exit routes had been blocked, as well as important civic sites, officials said. Entry and exit points were also blocked to and from all major cities in Punjab province and on the Grand Trunk Road (GTR).
Khan's supporters also clashed with security forces in other major cities, including the southern port city of Karachi and the eastern city of Lahore.
A mob torched a prison van in Karachi after clashing with police, and another group of protesters set fire to several trees along a main thoroughfare in Islamabad, officials said. The political violence has compounded uncertainty in the nuclear-armed South Asian nation.
Live local TV footage showed police fighting with Khan's supporters, beating them and in some places breaking their vehicles' windscreens and bundling them into police vans.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah later said police had carried out a total of 4,417 swoops on Khan supporters' homes, offices and on protest rallies and had arrested nearly 1,700 people. Of those, 250 were later freed, he said.
"We haven't stopped anyone from exercising their constitutional and legal right to hold a rally or take part in democratic politics, but we can't allow anyone to sow violence and chaos," said Sanaullah.
Imran Khan had promised to rally more than two million people in Islamabad.
Pakistan's opposition leader and former prime minister Imran Khan, who was ousted in a confidence vote last month was blamed for mishandling the economy. Khan has been holding rallies around the country following his ouster, blaming the United States for conspiring against his government.
Imran Khan on Sunday (22 May) announced the date of a march to Islamabad to demand the dissolution of assemblies and a date for elections, as the South Asian nation continues to slide into political and economic crisis.
However, Pakistan's government on Tuesday (24 May) banned PTI's protest march. The ban was announced by Pak Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah at a news briefing hours after a policeman was shot and killed during a crackdown on Khan's supporters across the country.
An official of Khan's party had shot and killed the policeman when police visited his house, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb told a news briefing, adding that the accused and his father had been arrested.
Imran Khan, who didn't condemn the policeman's killing, defended the shooting by his party official, a retired army officer, asking what should someone do if police barged into their home.
With foreign reserves falling to $10.3 billion - lower than two months of import bills - a fast-crashing Pakistani rupee and double-digit inflation, the political turmoil has compounded economic volatility in the country.
Pak PM Shehbaz Sharif, who replaced Khan last month, has yet to take bold steps toward putting the economy back on track.
Talks are ongoing in Doha between the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to resume a $6 billion rescue package agreed in 2019, and are due to conclude later today.