A Pakistani court convicted former Prime Minister Imran Khan of revealing official secrets on Tuesday and handed him his harshest sentence yet of 10 years — the latest in a slew of legal cases that supporters say are meant to sideline the imprisoned politician just days ahead of parliamentary elections.
Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in 2022, is not on the ballot because he is already serving a three-year prison term — and more than 150 other cases are still pending against him. The former cricket star nonetheless remains a potent political force because of his grassroots following and anti-establishment rhetoric.
However, Pakistan saw violent demonstrations after Khan’s arrest last year, and authorities have cracked down on the Islamist politician’s supporters and party since then, making them wary of staging new rallies.
The Feb. 8 elections come at a sensitive time in Pakistan, which is mired in an economic crisis that Khan’s successor, Shehbaz Sharif, struggled to manage. Sharif was only able to get a bailout from the International Monetary Fund by agreeing to a substantial increase in tariffs on gas and electricity that led to alarming price hikes on everyday goods and made his party unpopular.
On Tuesday, Khan was convicted in what is popularly known as the cipher case, in which he was accused of exposing state secrets by waving a confidential document at a rally. Pakistan’s governmnet has not made the document public but is believed to be diplomatic correspondence between the Pakistani ambassador to Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad.
Khan claimed the document was proof he was being threatened and that his ouster was a U.S. conspiracy, allegedly executed by the military and the government in Pakistan. American and Pakistani officials have denied the claim.
A special court at the prison in the garrison city of Rawalpindi where Khan is being held announced the verdict, according to Zulfiqar Bukhari, chief spokesman for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI. During the trial, Bukhari said, even some members of Khan’s legal team were denied access to the court. Journalists were also barred from covering the proceedings.
A senior official in the party, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who was accused of manipulating the contents of the diplomatic cable to gain political advantage, was also convicted and given a 10-year sentence.
One of Khan’s sisters, Aleema Khan, denounced the trial and said her brother was denied a fair hearing. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Khan, she said, adding that the verdict was delivered in haste.
She urged Khan’s supporters to turn out in large numbers at the polls on Feb. 8 and vote for PTI candidates in solidarity with her brother. Qureshi’s family similarly denounced his verdict and vowed to challenge it in court.
Khan has maintained his innocence, saying he did not disclose the exact contents of the cable. His party said Khan’s legal team planned to appeal the conviction before the Islamabad High Court on Wednesday.
Other charges against Khan range from contempt of court to terrorism and inciting violence.
Despite discontent with the government, analysts say turnout in the upcoming election may remain low since Khan is the only one in his party who had the charisma to attract the masses.
“The dejected and disappointed supporters of Imran Khan will stay away from the voting because they have a fear in their mind that their party is not going to win the elections,” said Azim Chaudhry, a political analyst, calling PTI a “leaderless party.”
Pakistan’s human rights commission has said there is little chance of a free and fair parliamentary election since so many candidates from Khan’s party have been rejected.
The PTI said in a statement that it stands with Khan and Qureshi, “who defended Pakistan and stood for real independence.” The party described the proceedings as a “sham trial” and said the judge did not even allow Khan’s and Qureshi’s lawyers to defend them.
However, the party asked his supporters to remain peaceful and not resort to violence.
“We should harness and channel these energies for the polling day” to ensure that Khan’s candidates win the vote “with a thumping majority,” said Omar Ayub, a longtime supporter.
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.
In 2018, three-time premier and Khan’s rival Nawaz Sharif was hobbled by legal cases and prison sentences. Khan’s party won the polls and formed a coalition government.
This time around, Sharif has a clear path to a fourth term in office after the supreme court acquitted him on all charges and scrapped a lifetime ban on politicians with criminal convictions from contesting elections.