Pakistan court jails ex-PM Imran Khan for 10 years days ahead of polls

Former cricket star found guilty of leaking state secrets

30 January 2024 - 13:32
By Gibran Peshimam and Ariba Shahid
Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, gestures as he speaks to the members of the media at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan, on May 18 2023. File photo.
Image: REUTERS/Mohsin Raza Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, gestures as he speaks to the members of the media at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan, on May 18 2023. File photo.

A Pakistan court sentenced Imran Khan to 10 years' jail on Tuesday for leaking state secrets, his party said, the harshest sentence against the former prime minister and cricketer in multiple cases coming just days before national elections.

The special court found Khan guilty of making public the contents of a secret cable sent by Pakistan's ambassador in Washington to the government in Islamabad, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party said. Former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was also sentenced to 10 years in the same case.

The jail term is the second conviction for Khan in recent months and ensures the popular politician will remain out of the public spotlight ahead of next week's parliamentary vote which will also lead to the nomination of a new prime minister.

The court was due to issue its written verdict later.

The PTI said it would challenge the decision. “We don't accept this illegal decision,” Khan's lawyer, Naeem Panjutha, posted on social media platform X.

Khan aide Zulfikar Bukhari said the legal team was given no chance to represent him or cross examine witnesses, adding the proceedings were carried out in jail.

Another of Khan's lawyers, Ali Zafar, told ARY television that given the circumstances of the trial and sentencing, the chances of the case being quashed on appeal were “100%".

Bukhari called the conviction an attempt to weaken support for Khan. “People will now make sure they come out and vote in larger numbers,” he said.

Khan was previously sentenced to three years in a corruption case, which had already ruled him out of the election next week.

However, his legal team was hoping to get him released from jail, where he has been since August last year, but the latest conviction means that is unlikely even as the charges are contested in a higher court.

The party of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Khan's main political opponent, said the verdict was not harsh enough.

“I think, based on his carelessness and crime — pertaining to important national interests — this is a very light sentence,” Ahsan Iqbal, a senior Sharif aide, said in a TV interview.

Multiple cases

Analysts believe Sharif's party is the front-runner to form the next government after the polls.

The sentencing just before the polls will “raise questions about the elections' credibility”, said Mazhar Abbas, a Karachi-based analyst.

Pakistan's recovery from economic crisis depends on political stability. The election comes as Pakistan is navigating a tricky recovery path under a $3bn (R56.6bn) International Monetary Fund bailout that helped the country narrowly avert a sovereign default last year.

Khan has been fighting dozens of cases since he was ousted from power in a parliamentary vote of no confidence in 2022.

Khan says the secret cable mentioned in the case was proof of a conspiracy by the Pakistani military and the US government to topple his government in 2022 after he visited Moscow, just before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Washington and the Pakistan military deny the accusations.

The former prime minister has previously said the contents of the cable appeared in the media from other sources.

Khan's PTI, which won the 2018 elections, suffered a major setback earlier this month when a court upheld the Election Commission's decision to strip the party of its traditional election symbol, the cricket bat.

His candidates are now contesting as independents, many of them on the run amid what the party calls a crackdown backed by the military. The military denies this.

Khan's media team posted a message from the jailed leader on X in the moments that led up to the verdict.

“These people want to provoke you by giving me a harsh sentence in this case so that you go out on the streets and protest, then add unknown people to the crowd and then do another false flag operation,” the post said.

In May last year, the first time Khan was arrested, his supporters were accused of rioting and ransacking military installations, including a high-ranking general's home. Khan denies his supporters were part of the mob.

He called on his supporters to make sure they came out in numbers to vote for candidates backed by him.

“This is your war and this is your test that you have to take revenge for every injustice by your vote on February 8 while remaining peaceful,” the post added.