November 13, 2014 / 12:44 PM / 5 years ago

Pakistan court issues arrest warrants for protest leaders Khan, Qadri

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani opposition leaders reacted with outrage on Thursday after a court issued arrest warrants for a top politician and a firebrand cleric who led protests in the capital of Islamabad aiming to topple the government.

Tahir ul-Qadri (R), Sufi cleric and leader of political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), greets Imran Khan, chairman of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party after attending Eid al-Adha prayers outside the parliament house in the Red Zone during an anti-government protest in Islamabad October 6, 2014. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

An anti-terrorism court issued the arrest warrants for opposition leader and former cricketer Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri late on Wednesday. The warrants accused their supporters of storming parliament and the state television building on Sept 1.

The warrants may provoke fresh unrest at a time when the country is struggling to rebuild its image.

Thousands of protesters led by Khan and Qadri demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over allegations of corruption and vote-rigging in the May 2013 polls.

The rallies turned deadly in September when demonstrators clashed with police in a central area near government buildings and embassies. Three people were killed.

“I have just heard the good news about my arrest warrant,” Khan said, addressing protesters late on Wednesday. “It will be easy for me to live in jail ... but I tell you, Nawaz Sharif, that you will have to pay a heavy price for my arrest.”

The anti-terrorism court also issued warrants against 33 others for storming parliament and trying to take over the Pakistan Television building, taking it off air and beating up the station’s journalists.

“The anti-terror court is meant for trial of terrorists, not politicians,” Khan’s spokesman, Shireen Mazari, said. “Imran Khan’s party will not allow police to arrest him.”

Anti-terrorism courts are often used in Pakistan for non-terrorism related cases because they are faster and more efficient than regular courts.

“This is a politically motivated, vengeful case against us,” Qadri’s party leader, Raheeq Abbasi, said. “The whole world knows that the PTV attack was a set-up.”

The demonstrations came at a difficult time for Pakistan, already plagued by an Islamist insurgency, sectarian tension and recurrent power shortages, with many people deeply unhappy with the government’s performance since it came to power.

Khan wants Sharif to step down because he believes the prime minister rigged the election. Sharif, who denies the charge, won the vote by a landslide, taking 190 of the 342 seats in the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistan’s history.

The demonstrations in the capital eventually ended in late October after numbers shrank and Khan and Qadri said they would go on nationwide tours to drum up support.

Editing by Katharine Houreld and Nick Macfie

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