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ISLAMABAD —Pakistani police Wednesday fired tear gas at demonstrators armed with sticks who are supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan in the eastern city of Lahore, resulting in the death of at least one protester in ensuing clashes.
Khan had planned to address an election rally of his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party in the capital of the country's most populous Punjab province, but authorities banned all kinds of public gatherings earlier in the day for unspecified "security threats."
Police sealed off all roads leading to Khan's residence in Lahore and subsequently unleashed a crackdown on PTI workers attempting to reach the venue.
Television video showed police firing tear gas shells and detaining several people, with some of them bleeding. One detainee could be seen being severely beaten by baton-armed police officers. He later died in custody, Khan said on Twitter.
"Ali Bilal unarmed & our dedicated & passionate PTI worker murdered by Punjab police," the former prime minister wrote. "Shameful, this brutality on unarmed PTI workers who were coming to attend the election rally. Pakistan is in the grip of murderous criminals."
Provincial Information Minister Amir Mir defended the police crackdown, saying PTI workers started attacking police officers when ordered to disperse. "In retaliation, police used water cannons, tear gas, and batons to disperse them," Mir told the Reuters news agency. He said at least seven police officials were injured.
A spokesman for the Lahore police, Syed Mubashir, speaking to the local Dawn news outlet on the death of the PTI worker, said, "This is an accident." A police statement later said the clashes had left 11 members of the force injured.
The violent clashes prompted Khan to call off his rally, saying the government was intentionally creating a law and order situation in a bid to postpone the Punjab provincial assembly election scheduled for April 30. The PTI-dominated legislature was recently dissolved by Khan in an attempt to force early national elections in Pakistan.
Wednesday's ban on protests and rallies disrupted a women's march in Lahore, called "Aurat March," in connection with International Women's Day.
"Today was a downright dreadful day for democracy in Pakistan," tweeted Michael Kugelman, the South Asia Institute director at Washington's Wilson Center.
Harindrini Corea, the regional researcher on the right to protest at Amnesty International, denounced the blanket ban as a breach of Pakistan's international commitment to protect civil and political rights.
"The use of a draconian colonial-era law to crush dissent hours before several protests, including the Aurat March, was scheduled to be held in the city is a stark failure of the Pakistani authorities to respect and uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly," said Corea.
"The ban must be lifted immediately, and all the people arrested solely for exercising their right to protest peacefully should be immediately and unconditionally released," Corea added.
Khan, 70, has been pressing Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's beleaguered coalition government to announce early general elections since a parliamentary no-confidence vote removed Khan from office last April.
Sharif, who succeeded the deposed prime minister, has rejected the snap vote demand, saying it will be held once the national parliament completes its mandatory five-year term later this year.
On Sunday, the government also banned all satellite television channels from broadcasting Khan's speeches and news conferences, a move domestic and international rights watchdogs condemned as an attack on freedom of speech in Pakistan.
The ousted prime minister has been living in Lahore since November, when he was shot and wounded during a protest rally. Khan accuses Sharif and an unnamed military officer of the country's spy agency of plotting to kill him, charges government officials have rejected.
The cricket hero-turned-PTI chief has been embroiled in more than 70 court cases since his ouster and is wanted in court on March 13 to defend against charges that he unlawfully sold state gifts, misusing his authority as the prime minister from 2018 to 2022.
Khan accuses the Sharif government of instituting what he dismisses as fake lawsuits, fearing his PTI's growing popularity in the wake of recent regional and by-elections.