Protesters enraged by the arrest of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, on Tuesday broke into the headquarters of the army in an unprecedented show of defiance against the powerful military.
Mr Khan, the legendary cricketer, was arrested in the morning by security forces who stormed the Islamabad High Court before bundling him into an armoured car.
Video footage showed dozens of officers from the paramilitary Rangers Police force shoving and manhandling the 70-year-old, who walks with a limp following an assassination attempt last year.
Furious protesters descended on major cities and military sites across the country as leaders of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) called for a national ‘shutdown’.
The political temperature in Pakistan was already at boiling point after Mr Khan over the weekend named a senior officer in the feared Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) military spy network as behind the attempt on his life.
Dozens of protesters were filmed breaking into the home of a military commander in Lahore before smashing his furniture and setting the building on fire.
Police fired tear gas at protesters and water cannons at protesters in the capital Islamabad and Karachi, the country’s largest city.
In Peshawar, a mob razed the Chaghi monument – a mountain-shaped sculpture honouring the location of Pakistan’s first nuclear test.
Three people were killed when security forces opened fire in the city of Quetta, while at least eighteen were shot in the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Their condition was unclear on Tuesday night.
In Rawalpindi, demonstrators broke through the gate to the army’s headquarters, clubbing a coat-of-arms on their way through.
Cyril Almeida, a respected political columnist, said that the break-in at General Headquarters was “unreal”.
“Either the revolution is here or something terrible is about to unfold,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mr Khan has been locked for months in an increasingly tempestuous duel with the military, which he alleges oversaw his ouster in a 2022 no confidence vote.
The military has ruled the nation for almost half of its history and, although it is widely seen as pulling the strings of political affairs, discussing that influence in public has long been deemed taboo.
Mr Khan, who attended Oxford University before becoming Pakistan’s cricket captain, was attending court to face one of 100 charges of corruption filed against him since he left power. He claims the charges are politically fabricated.
It was unclear on Tuesday whether the paramilitary Rangers had the authority to arrest Mr Khan.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said that Mr Khan had failed to appear before the court despite being issued several notices. “The arrest has been conducted by the National Accountability Bureau for causing losses to the national treasury,” he said.
Allies of the former prime minister called it an “abduction”.
Aamer Farooq, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court, demanded an explanation from the capital’s police chief and the interior ministry for why the Rangers had burst into the court premises to seize Mr Khan.
Mr Farooq said he would summon prime minister Shahbaz Sharif if he did not receive a satisfactory response.
Later in the evening Mr Farooq ruled that the arrest of Mr Khan was indeed legal.
An eyewitness of the arrest, who did not want to be named, told the Telegraph that Mr Khan was “grabbed by the collar, lifted from his wheelchair” and then “dragged out on the road”.
Gohar Khan, Mr Khan’s lawyer, said his client was beaten over the head and in the leg where he was shot.
Azhar Siddique, a senior lawyer in Pakistan, said the arrest of the former prime minister within the court premises was illegal, unconstitutional and amounted to contempt of the court.
On Saturday, Mr Khan said a major general in the ISI, Faisal Naseer, attempted to assassinate him twice.
“Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)’s Major-General Faisal Naseer tried to kill me twice. He is also involved in the killing of (TV anchor) Arshad Sharif. He also stripped my party Senator Azam Swati naked and inflicted severe torture on him,” Mr Khan said during a public rally in Lahore.
His arrest came a day after the military issued a furious denial of his “baseless” allegations.
“The timing of the arrest is striking,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
“The senior army leadership is uninterested in repairing the rift between itself and Khan, and so with this arrest it’s likely sending a message that the gloves are very much off.”
Mr Khan was arrested by the Rangers amid allegations he, his wife and other party leaders signed off on a property deal that cost the exchequer £190m.
As part of the deal, the case alleges, Mr Khan was given use of land to help form Al-Qadir University. He denies the charges.
He was in court to face separate charges that he profited from the sale of luxury gifts he did not declare during his term as prime minister.
The storm of protests comes as Pakistan faces a severe economic crisis. Mr Khan is calling for early elections against the struggling coalition government.