A Pakistani court convicted former Prime Minister Imran Khan of revealing official secrets on Tuesday and sentenced him to 10 years — the latest in a slew of legal cases that supporters say are meant to sideline the imprisoned former cricket star just days ahead of parliamentary elections.
The Islamist politician, 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. He 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 his supporters and party since then, making them wary of staging rallies.
The February 8 elections come at a sensitive time in Pakistan, which is mired in an economic crisis that Khan’s successor, Shehbaz Sharif, has 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. The document has not been made 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 US 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.
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 received a 10-year sentence.
Khan has maintained his innocence, saying he didn’t disclose the exact contents of the cable. His party dismissed the trial as a sham, and his legal team plans 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.
Khan’s party said in a statement that it stands with Khan and Qureshi, “who defended Pakistan and stood for real independence.” It 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.