Pakistan’s imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan is convicted again, days before elections

Pakistan's imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan is convicted again, days before elections © Provided by The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was found guilty of corruption on Wednesday and sentenced to 14 years, yet another blow to the imprisoned populist leader days before his political movement attempts a return to power in parliamentary elections.

It was his second conviction in as many days and the harshest yet, and was seen as part of the long-running struggle between civilian leaders and the powerful military in the troubled Western ally.

Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi — who was also convicted Wednesday — were accused of retaining and selling state gifts in violation of government rules when he was in power. In addition to his prison term, Khan was disqualified from holding any public office for 10 years.

His lawyer, Babar Awan, dismissed the conviction as a violation of Khan’s basic rights, and said the former premier was convicted and sentenced in such a hurry that the judge did not wait for the arrival of his legal team.

Khan — who in the waning days of his premiership began to challenge the country’s military — was ousted from power in a no-confidence vote in April 2022. He now has more than 150 legal cases hanging over him.

Still, the former cricket star remains intensely popular. Pakistan saw violent demonstrations — including ones that targeted military installations — after Khan’s arrest last year.

Authorities have since cracked down on his supporters and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, making further rallies unlikely, and many of his party’s candidates have been disqualified from contesting the Feb. 8 parliamentary elections.

Pakistan has a history of arresting former prime ministers or sidelining them ahead of elections if they are deemed to pose a challenge to the security establishment — which has long held significant sway in civilian politics. More than two-thirds of its civilian rulers have been arrested, convicted or disqualified since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947.

But even given this history, analyst Azim Chaudhry said the rapid succession of Khan’s convictions — three in about six months — was unusual.

“The message is Imran Khan will remain behind bars for a longer time if he does not change his rhetoric against the country’s institutions,” said Chaudhry, who is an independent, Islamabad-based analyst.

With Khan fighting legal battles, his rival, three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, has a clear path to a fourth term in office. Sharif himself was hobbled by legal cases and prison sentences, but the Supreme Court and other courts have acquitted him on all charges and scrapped a lifetime ban on politicians with criminal convictions from contesting elections.

Sharif’s party succeeded Khan’s after his ouster, and currently a caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-haq Kakar is running day-to-day affairs.

Though Kakar has said he would ensure free and fair elections in a peaceful environment, there have been isolated attacks at election rallies. A candidate from Khan’s party, Rehan Zeb, was shot and killed Wednesday in northwestern Pakistan’s Bajur district. A day earlier, four people died when a roadside bomb went off near rally participants from Khan’s party in the southwestern Baluchistan province.

Khan and Bibi were indicted three weeks ago on charges that they bought gifts — including jewelry and watches from Saudi Arabia’s government — at reduced prices and sold them at market value. They pleaded not guilty.

In Pakistan, government leaders are allowed to buy gifts received from foreign dignitaries and heads of state, but they aren’t usually then sold. If they are, the earnings must be declared. The prosecution said Khan did not correctly disclose his income after selling gifts.

In addition to the prison terms, the couple was fined 787 million rupees ($2.8 million) each.

Khan is already serving a three-year sentence on a corruption conviction, and he got a 10-year term on Tuesday after being found guilty of revealing state secrets; all three sentences will be served concurrently.

In a statement, Zulfiqar Bukhari, the chief spokesperson for Khan’s party, said Wednesday’s ruling was “another sad day in our judicial system history which is being dismantled.”

Awan, the lawyer, said the latest ruling would be challenged in higher courts.

Bibi was absent when the judge announced the verdict but later went to the court to avoid being arrested. She will be handed over to prison officials to serve her sentence.

Khan briefly attended Wednesday’s hearing but left the courtroom when the judge was about to read the verdict. He said he could not remain there without his lawyer and asked the judge to wait. His request was denied.

Muhammad Ali, an Islamabad-based political analyst, noted that Khan’s legal team has frequently skipped court hearings as part of a strategy to delay the trial.

Gohar Khan, the head of the PTI, disputed the idea that Imran Khan’s political career was over after this latest conviction.

“He is not gone and I appeal to our supporters to vote for the candidates of PTI to ensure that we win the election, and this is the best way to avenge (him),” he said.

Analysts, however, have said Khan’s party will struggle in upcoming elections, with no one able to match his charisma.

Source: Munir Ahmed, The Associated Press