Photo: The Express Tribune

Court Sentences Former PM Imran Khan and His Foreign Minister Ahead of Elections

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – A Pakistani court sentenced the country’s former prime minister, Imran Khan, along with his foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, to 10 years in prison for leaking official secrets. Mr. Khan and Mr. Qureshi who served as vice chairman of his party, were sentenced by a special court on Monday, January 30, in Rawalpindi, where they are held in prison.

Mr. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has reacted to the court’s decision, calling it a “sham trial” and vowing to challenge the verdict. In a social media post, his lawyer said, “we do not accept this illegal decision.”

After being ousted as the premier, Mr. Khan brandished a document during a rally, claiming that it was evidence of a conspiracy orchestrated by the United States to remove him from office.

Washington soon denied the allegations. But what brought further trouble to Mr. Khan’s doorsteps were his allegations that the country’s military along with elements in the government acted at the American behest.

The document that Mr. Khan waved in his rally, popularly known as Cipher, has not been disclosed to the public by either the Pakistani government or Khan’s party. However, there is a suspicion that it was a record of diplomatic communications between the Pakistani ambassador to Washington and the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In response to the court’s decision, PTI has also tried to mobilize its public base to put pressure on the authorities. In a post on X, the party’s account urged its supporters not to forget their responsibility in ensuring justice for PTI leaders by casting their votes in the upcoming general election in Pakistan on February 8.

“A complete mockery and disregard of law in the cipher case shall not lead us to forget our primary responsibility in order to provide justice to IK and SMQ: vote and protect your vote on 8th!” the post reads.

Mr. Khan and his party argue that the court business is only to undermine them in the upcoming elections in which Mr. Khan was not allowed to run because of the allegations against him.

Expected to be a consequential event, the February 8th vote is surrounded by concerns of fairness and transparency. According to Pakistan’s human rights commission, there is a slim chance of a free and fair parliamentary election next month due to “pre-poll rigging.” The commission has also expressed concerns about the authorities rejecting the candidacies of Khan and senior figures from his party.

The government of Mr. Khan, 71, was ousted from office in April 2022 through a no-confidence vote by opposition parties that many believed was orchestrated by the country’s mighty military establishment.

Following Khan’s arrest in May 2023, there have been instances of violent protests in many cities, including Islamabad. The party has been subject to widespread crackdown, with its leading figures either jailed or forced to leave the party.

Since then, Mr. Khan and several senior members of his cabinet, including his foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, have been entangled in multiple legal cases. The former prime minister is currently serving a three-year prison term on charges of corruption from May 2023.

The Cipher case is one of over 150 allegations against Khan. Additional charges include terrorism, incitement of violence, corruption, and contempt of court.

Mr. Khan and his PTI have had decades-old flirtation with the army. During the early years of its formation, the party supported the military rule of Parvez Musharraf from 1999 to 2007. After sensing that Musharraf’s downfall was near, it rose in opposition to him in 2007, eventually claiming most of his constituencies after Musharraf’s party, PML-Q, fell from grace.

A popular former cricketer in his youth, Mr. Khan founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996, although it failed to gain traction for years. It was after 2013 that it emerged as a major political block, thanks partly to constituents’ disaffection with major political parties in previous years.

His recent rise to prominence has had a similar trajectory to its earlier entry into the political landscape of Pakistan. Mr. Khan’s government came to power in 2018 in an election that many thoughts was controlled by the military. His opposition to the military establishment that has sent him to prison now began only after his government was voted out.

Mr. Khan has also previously accused his successor, Shahbaz Sharif, of orchestrating legal allegations against him for political motives. Mr. Sharif stepped down as Prime Minister in November 2023 so a caretaker government, according to the country’s constitution, could hold the parliamentary elections in February 2024.

Although Mr. Khan will not be on the ballot on February 8, his party continues to command large constituencies alongside the two traditionally established powerhouses, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). Former president and widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari is on the ballot for PPP while three-times prime minister Nawaz Sharif (elder brother of former prime minister Shahbaz Sharif) has returned from a four-year self-exile to run for elections yet once more.