Pakistani police called off a two-day operation to arrest former Prime Minister Imran Khan after violent clashes delayed them and a court ordered a halt so that a cricket match could start.
“We can’t afford to risk the security and safety of the Pakistan Super League (PSL),” a senior police official told the Reuters news agency, clarifying that the operation would resume following the completion of the cricket tournament.
The Lahore High Court also ordered police to pause the operation pending the result of a hearing on the legitimacy of the arrest warrant after police and 70-year-old Khan’s supporters clashed outside his home, the BBC reported.
Supporters of Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), protested against Khan’s arrest, which the former prime minister insisted was unnecessary since he had agreed to show up in court on Mar. 18, but police refused to accept the signed surety bond and tried to arrest him anyway.
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A lower court had issued a warrant for his arrest for defying orders to present himself over charges that he unlawfully sold state gifts given to him by foreign dignitaries during his time in office.
The gifts included seven watches, with one valued at around $300,000, as well as perfumes, diamond jewelry and dinner sets, according to a list shared by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb last year.
The country’s parliament ousted him from office through a no-confidence vote over the allegations, and he maintains the case is politically motivated. He denies any wrongdoing.
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“Whether I am in jail or not, they will not be able to stop my party winning,” Khan previously told the BBC.
Since then, he has held nationwide protest rallies to demand a snap election, during one of which he was shot and wounded.
Police tried to take Khan by force, but his supporters stood their ground and clashed with police over a two-day period before the decision to pause for the PSL cricket tournament.
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“Since the teams have to reach the stadium a few hours before the match and the routes need to be cleared out, the security personnel at Zaman Park have stepped back for a short while,” an unnamed senior police official told Al Jazeera.
Gaddafi Stadium, which hosts the match between the Lahore Qalandars and the Multan Sultans, is more than five miles from Khan’s home.
Khan appeared outside and spoke to his supporters, and his party wrote on Twitter that the “people” had pushed back the police who were “sent to harm Imran Khan.”
Cricket remains the most popular sport in the country, attracting international players to the country. The sport often finds itself tangled up with politics.
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Khan himself enjoyed an illustrious career as a cricket professional, playing as a bowler for Pakistan where he earned the third all-time test bowling ranking during the 1980s.
Reuters contributed to this report.