Islamabad, Pakistan – A 34-second video, shot in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore on May 9, starts by showing a group of people, including women, entering a mansion.
They are wielding sticks, chanting slogans and carrying flags of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
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The man making the video says: “People have broken through the gates and have now entered the corps commander’s residence,” referring to a senior military officer.
Imran Khan’s supporters broke into corp commander house in Lahore — one of workers heard saying in video they (PTI workers) warned you not to touch Imran Khan.
— Veengas (@VeengasJ) May 9, 2023
He then walks towards a soldier standing on a corner of a vast lawn, looking at the crowd entering the compound, and tells him, “Sir, we told you not to touch Imran Khan.”
The mansion was not just the residence of a top military general in Lahore, it also had historical significance. Named Jinnah House, after the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a part of the imposing building was later set on fire by the protesters.
CORP COMMANDER HOUSE, LAHORE 🔥pic.twitter.com/7uwmCMR4hI
— Justuju – جستجو (@justujuuu) May 9, 2023
The video, which went viral on Pakistani social media, was shot shortly after Khan was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) at a court in the capital, Islamabad, on corruption charges.
The dramatic arrest shocked the nation, with Khan’s supporters hitting the streets and demanding his immediate release.
Dozens of similar videos showed the protesters in several cities targeting installations and buildings belonging to Pakistan’s powerful military.
A video shot in the garrison town of Rawalpindi – where the Pakistani Army General Headquarters is located – showed a woman protesting at the entrance of the fortified complex, rattling the gate to open it as two other women surrounded her.
— Malik Ali Raza (@MalikAliiRaza) May 9, 2023
Another video showed hundreds of people carrying PTI flags and wearing party scarves descending on the same gate, trying to climb it and hitting it with batons. Before long, they entered the compound, chanting “God is great” and demanding Khan’s release.
On Thursday, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Khan was illegally arrested and ordered his immediate release. The 70-year-old opposition leader was presented before the High Court in Islamabad on Friday where he has challenged his arrest.
Imran Khan v the military
Pakistan’s military has staged three coups since the country was founded in 1947. It has directly ruled over the country for more than three decades and enjoys massive influence in domestic politics.
When Khan’s PTI won the national election in 2018, political opponents and observers attributed the historic win to the support of the powerful military, with some even accusing the army of rigging the polls.
During his tenure as the premier between 2018 and 2022, Khan would often exhort how he was on “one page” with the army, signalling his close coordination with the military’s top brass.
But tensions between Khan and the army arose on foreign policy matters, in which Khan’s government wanted a bigger say. The escalating tensions led to his removal in 2022, which Khan alleged was orchestrated by the military.
“Imran Khan always said Pakistan needs a strong military during his rule. This is most important for the country and we thought they also understood it. But when the vote of no confidence took place, it was shocking. I could never have thought that situation would come to this point,” Abdul Aziz, a 35-year-old resident of Lahore, told Al Jazeera.
Since April 2022, Khan had been holding rallies across the nation to demand early elections, due by October this year. An assassination attempt was made on him during the campaign last November. Khan accused the government and some army officers of plotting to kill him.
Khan’s supporters say his dramatic arrest on Tuesday was also orchestrated by the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif at the behest of the army.
“’Til the army was supporting the constitution and stood by our leader, we always stood by the army as well. We thought they knew what was right or wrong. But when we saw the army going against Khan and his ideology, and trying to suppress our voices, I knew I cannot be with them,” Abdullah Afridi, a 30-year-old resident of Khyber district in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told Al Jazeera.
‘Our red line is Imran Khan’
Aziz said he was part of the group of protesters who stormed the military commander’s residence in Lahore on Tuesday.
“Our red line is Imran Khan and when you see so much brutality that has happened with him and the way he was abducted, there must be a limit. There is a boiling point, everything has a limit, and when you go beyond, things explode, and you cannot do anything,” he told Al Jazeera.
While Aziz denied he was a part of the crowd that vandalised the residence, he admitted that passions were running high and it was difficult to keep a lid on them.
He also alleged that many “unknown elements” in the crowd had entered the residence and “incited and provoked” the protesters to attack.
“We have always conducted our protests in a calm and peaceful manner. But when you oppress somebody to a point of no return, people eventually retaliate and break the shackles. When a crowd is agitated, it gets difficult to control them,” he said.
Afridi, who runs a real estate business in Khyber, told Al Jazeera he had been protesting in front of Peshawar’s Bala Hisar Fort, which is under the control of a paramilitary unit of the Pakistan Army.
“It can be said that our protest is wrong or seen as unlawful but why does nobody ask the military what they have been doing?” he said.