Pakistani court grants protection to Imran Khan from arrest

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Pakistani court on Friday shielded from arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan until at least next week, amid a roiling political crisis that has pitted the celebrity politician against the current government and spilled over into street protests.

Khan was ousted through a no-confidence vote in Parliament last April. Since then, the 70-year-old former cricket player turned politician has become embroiled in more than 100 legal cases against him, including graft while in office.

The ruling by the Lahore High Court was another reprieve for embattled Khan, who is now the country's top opposition leader. The court order virtually prevents his arrest until March 27 over accusations that he incited supporters from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to violence when he failed to appear before a court in the capital Islamabad because of hours-long clashes between his party and the police.

Since November, Khan has avoided appearances before courts in Islamabad in at least three cases, including a graft charge, when he was wounded in a gun attack at a protest rally in the eastern Punjab province. Khan says his life is in danger and that's why he is seeking bail to avoid appearances before judges in multiple cases.

Khan’s standoff with the government of his successor, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, has turned increasingly violent in recent weeks. Last week, his supporters clashed with police in Islamabad, resulting in injuries to dozens of officers.

Because of the violence, Khan could not appear before the judge in person to face indictment in the graft case. He is accused of illegally selling state gifts he had received during his term as premier and concealing his assets.

Khan has denied all charges against him, saying he is being victimized by Sharif's government.

Friday's court order was another reprieve for Khan, who is expected to lead a rally in Lahore on Saturday to pressure the government of Sharif to agree to the holding of snap elections. Sharif has said the next parliamentary elections will be held on time later this year when the parliament completes its five-year term.

Khan has repeatedly alleged that his ouster was a conspiracy engineered by his successor, Sharif, and the United States. Both have denied the charge.

But the ousted premier in recent weeks has adopted a conciliatory approach toward Washington.

On Friday, Pakistan's Defense Minister Khawaja Mohammad Asif at a news conference criticized Khan for trying to seek help from diplomats and politicians in the United States, saying for months Khan blamed Washington for his ouster, and now the former premier was approaching America to get help against Sharif's government.

Asif also defended this week's decision by the country's elections oversight body to delay elections for a provincial assembly in the key Punjab province from April 30 to until Oct. 8.

The move has drawn criticism from Khan. Wednesday's decision by the Election Commission comes months after Khan’s party dissolved the regional assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in a failed bid to force snap national elections.

On Friday, President Arif Alvi wrote a letter to Sharif, urging him to hold elections for the two provincial assemblies on time.