Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan was arrested on Tuesday in a major escalation of a political crisis that has pitted the current government against Mr. Khan since he was ousted from office last year and that now raises the prospect of mass unrest.
Mr. Khan was at a court hearing in Islamabad when he was arrested by paramilitary troops, a day after the Pakistani military issued a strong statement against the former leader accusing him of making false accusations against a senior intelligence official.
Mr. Khan, who was removed from office in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April last year, is facing dozens of court cases on charges that include terrorism and corruption.
The arrest instantly intensified a showdown between the government and Mr. Khan, a populist former cricket star, who has staged a political comeback in the months since his removal from office. His party has drawn tens of thousands to political rallies across the country, at which Mr. Khan and others have called for fresh elections and accused Pakistan’s powerful military establishment of orchestrating his ouster.
He and his supporters have characterized the accusations as a misuse of the justice system by the government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and by the military to sideline him from politics. Pakistani political and military leaders have repeatedly denied those claims.
The political tensions surrounding Mr. Khan came to a head in November, when the former prime minister was wounded during a political rally after an unidentified man opened fire on his convoy, in what aides have called an assassination attempt. Since then, Mr. Khan has been mostly ensconced at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.
Fawad Chaudhry, a top aide to Mr. Khan, said that the threat to Mr. Khan’s life made court appearances much riskier, adding: “It is not humanly possible to make court appearances in such a vast number of cases.”
The drama surrounding Mr. Khan seems only to have buoyed his popularity, analysts say, underscoring his unique ability to outmaneuver Pakistan’s typical playbook for sidelining political leaders who have fallen out of favor with the country’s powerful military.
Over the summer, his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., won sweeping victories in local elections in Punjab — a province that has often served as a bellwether for national politics — and in the port city of Karachi.
Those political victories were also seen as a response to worsening economic conditions that the new government has struggled to address, and as a repudiation of the military establishment, which has long wielded a heavy hand in Pakistani politics.
But they have prompted a growing crackdown on Mr. Khan and his supporters that many view as a coordinated effort by the authorities to dampen his political prospects.
Journalists known to be sympathetic to Mr. Khan say they have been harassed by the authorities. Live broadcasts of Mr. Khan’s speeches have been banned from news television channels. A mainstream channel, ARY News, was forced off the air after airing an interview with one of Mr. Khan’s top aides in which he made anti-military remarks.
The crisis has flipped the script for Mr. Khan, who benefited from a close relationship with the military when he was elected prime minister in 2018. At the time, his political rivals claimed that the authorities had waged a campaign of coercion and intimidation that deterred any opposition to Mr. Khan and ensured his electoral success.
Military officials have denied those accusations and maintained that the institution has adopted a “neutral” position in the current political crisis. The military appeared to withdraw their support for Mr. Khan at the beginning of last year, after which lawmakers in Parliament removed him with the no-confidence vote.
Since then, Mr. Khan’s accusations that the military was colluding against him have grown increasingly harsh and direct — a rarity in Pakistan’s political system, where the military wields an intimidating influence.
Still, Mr. Khan has retained widespread popularity — a sign that the authorities’ traditional methods for sidelining political leaders may not be enough to silence a populist politician in the era of social media, analysts say.
Now, many fear Mr. Khan’s arrest will further escalate the political turmoil that has embroiled the country in recent months. Before Mr. Khan was detained, his aides warned that doing so would set off mass unrest that could bring Pakistan to a standstill.