Pakistan's embattled former Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed tens of thousands of his supporters in the eastern city of Lahore late Saturday, renewing allegations that the powerful military's meddling in politics pushed the country to the brink of an economic disaster and calling for early elections.
The 70-year-old leader of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party spoke from a bulletproof container, the first time he has done so since he was shot at and wounded last November while leading an anti-government rally, his aides said.
The turnout was massive despite government attempts to block access to the venue by placing shipping containers at crucial entry and exit routes of the city. The provincial government cited terrorism threats for beefing security and blocking "certain routes" in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, Pakistan’s the most populous.
Khan was removed from power in April in a no-confidence vote, but recent polls suggest he remains the country's most popular political leader. He accused the recently retired Pakistani military chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, of orchestrating his ouster in collaboration with his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and the United States, charges Washington and Islamabad have rejected.
In his speech Saturday, Khan alleged that the Pakistani military is behind a crackdown on his party and trying to get him disqualified from politics, fearing he would sweep national elections scheduled for later this year.
"I know you have decided you wouldn't allow Imran Khan back in power. That's fine with me. But do you have a plan or know how to get the country out of the current crisis?" Khan asked at the rally Saturday.
Khan maintains the government has filed more than 100 cases against him, including corruption, terrorism, blasphemy, and sedition charges, to keep him from leading his party's election campaign. Khan denies all the allegations saying they are politically motivated.
Government officials say the number of legal cases against Khan is close to 40.
Khan reiterated his demand Saturday for early national elections, saying they would lead to political stability in Pakistan. He insisted that a government with public support can only introduce much-needed economic reforms and win the confidence of international lenders.
Inflation has risen to more than 46%, foreign exchange reserves have sunk to record lows, and the country of about 220 million people is on the brink of default on foreign debt payments as the International Monetary Fund has yet to revive a critical bailout program for Pakistan over a lack of economic reforms.
Khan, who accused Sharif and his administration of plotting the November assassination attempt, has repeatedly claimed that the government is conspiring to kill him.
Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, speaking to reporters Friday, rejected Khan's allegations as "scandalous" and said the PTI chief was making such claims to whip up his supporters.
Khan alleged Saturday that police had arrested about 2,000 members of his party to deter people from attending the rally. Local media widely reported a police crackdown on PTI workers in Punjab, leading to detention of scores people ahead of the rally, but officials did not comment on the reports.
Authorities, however, have confirmed arresting hundreds of Khan supporters for their alleged role in violent clashes with security forces in recent days.
According to sources at the media outlets, dozens of Pakistani television channels did not cover Saturday's opposition rally under government pressure. PTI's social media platforms, including YouTube, aired Khan's speech.
Source: Voice of America