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Despite Police Blockades, Pakistani Opposition Plans Major Protest


It's not just in America where tough-talking celebrities become politicians. In Pakistan, a famous cricket-player-turned-opposition-leader is gearing up to confront the government on the streets of the capital, Islamabad. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Imran Khan is mobilizing again. The former cricket star has a villa on a hill overlooking Pakistan's capital.

IMRAN KHAN: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: He's addressing a throng of party supporters who got here somehow, despite many police checkpoints and barricades along the way. Tomorrow, Khan plans to launch a mass protest right in the middle of Islamabad. The government is trying to prevent him because it hasn't forgotten this...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

REEVES: ...A sit-in in the city center led by Khan and a popular Islamic cleric in 2014. It lasted four months. Protesters broke into the grounds of Parliament and were there so long they set up a school for their kids. This time, many hundreds of Khan's supporters have already been arrested. Police are using giant shipping containers to block highways into the capital. They've been skirmishes and tear gas.

RAFIA SHAHID: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: "It's very difficult getting here," explains Rafia Shahid (ph), an activist in Khan's political party. Yet, tomorrow's sit-in will still go ahead, says another supporter, Yassir Ali (ph).

YASSIR ALI: Yes, why not? Because this is our Democratic right. We will sit here.

REEVES: Imran Khan says his mass protest is to compel the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to resign. He accuses Sharif of corruption, citing evidence in the Panama Papers that Sharif family members had money offshore. Political analyst Talat Masood, a retired general, thinks it's the wrong time to pick this fight.

TALAT MASOOD: Because, at the moment, Pakistan faces numerous challenges - and very serious ones, which threaten the very integrity of the state.

REEVES: Masood says these threats include a crisis in relations with India and deadly attacks by militants within Pakistan. Right now, there are also significant tensions between Sharif's government and the military, not least over who should be army chief. When the generals and politicians don't get along, many Pakistanis worry that history will repeat itself with another army takeover. Khan's protest doesn't help, says Masood.

MASOOD: When there is a confrontation between political parties, the military's space in the political arena increases manyfold.

REEVES: On his hilltop outside the capital, Imran Khan dismisses such criticism, like a star cricketer swatting the ball out of the stadium.

Your critics say that you're destabilizing the country at a very delicate time.

KHAN: So what is an opposition supposed to do if it doesn't stand up when the public money's stolen? If I don't speak about it, what's the point of an opposition?

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.