Pakistan's ex-PM Khan leads rally, ignores arrest warrants

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Former Prime Minister Imran Khan rallied thousands of supporters in eastern Pakistan on Monday as courts in the capital of Islamabad issued two more arrest warrants for him for failing to appear before judges in graft and terrorism cases, officials said.

Since his ouster last April in a no-confidence vote in Parliament, Khan has routinely ignored arrest warrants and court summons in a string of cases against him, claiming they are a plot by the government of his successor, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, to discredit his campaign.

The former cricket star turned Islamist politician has claimed that his ouster was illegal and a conspiracy by Sharif and Washington, which have denied the allegations.

Khan's critics say his flaunting of the courts is a maneuver to delay his trials on allegations of terrorism, contempt of court and graft.

One of the warrants issued Monday was over charges that Khan sold state gifts and concealed assets while in office; the other in connection with his verbal threats against a judge during a rally last year.

The warrants request that Khan be brought to court for hearings scheduled on March 18 and March 29. However, it remained unclear whether police would act on them.

The developments indicate Sharif's government is stepping up pressure on Khan, who is currently campaigning for his party in upcoming elections for two regional assemblies. Monday's rally was taking place in the eastern city of Lahore, where Khan now lives.

“Imran Khan is deliberately failing to appear before the courts,” said Mohsin Ranjha, a lawyer for Sharif's ruling Pakistan Muslim League party.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf opposition party said authorities have registered 80 “fake cases” against Khan in order to politically victimize the former premier, whose life is being threatened. Fawad Chaudhry, a senior party leader, said Khan's legal team would challenge the warrants.

Khan's supporters threw rose petals at a convoy carrying him to the Lahore rally, which swelled to more than 5,000. Security was ramped up and hundreds of police were deployed to the city for Monday's rally, which authorities permitted.

Later, Khan from his bullet-proof vehicle addressed supporters, saying he will hold an election rally in the city's spacious public park on Sunday. He denounced Wednesday's police crackdown against his planned rally in Lahore, saying he will never forget the killing of one of his supporters who died in police custody after being arrested. However, police deny the claim, saying Zillay Shah died on the road.

Last Wednesday, police used water cannons and fired tear gas to disperse Khan's supporters during a banned rally in Lahore. Dozens of his followers were arrested for defying the ban.

Khan was attacked during a rally in November when a gunman shot him in the leg. One of Khan’s supporters was killed and a dozen others were wounded in the attack, which drew nationwide condemnation.