Pakistani police arrested former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday, minutes after a federal court sentenced him to three years in prison on charges of illegally selling state gifts.
The popular 70-year-old politician was taken into custody in the eastern city of Lahore before being transported to a prison facility northwest of the national capital of Islamabad, where the verdict was announced, government and Khan representatives said.
Unless overturned by an appeals court, the conviction will disqualify Khan from national politics for five years and end his chances of contesting Pakistan’s next elections, scheduled for later this year, legal experts said, citing election laws.
Khan's political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, said it had quickly challenged the verdict in the Supreme Court.
"It’s absolutely shameful and disgusting how a mockery of law is going on just because the wish is to disqualify and jail Imran Khan,” PTI said in a statement.
The sentence relates to an inquiry by the country’s election commission that found the former cricket legend guilty of unlawfully selling state gifts while serving as prime minister from 2018 to 2022.
The judge ruled Saturday in Khan’s absence that charges against him in the so-called Toshakhana case were proven.
Toshakhana is a repository where foreign dignitaries’ gifts to government officials are stored, but officials are legally allowed to retain gifts after paying a certain percentage of the price to the Toshakhana administration.
“He has been found guilty of corrupt practices by hiding the benefits he accrued from the national exchequer willfully and intentionally,” the judge wrote in his verdict. “He cheated while providing information of gifts he obtained from Toshakhana, which later proved to be false and inaccurate. His dishonesty has been established beyond doubt,” the verdict read.
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Khan was accused of “deliberately” concealing proceeds from the reported sale of the gifts he had received during foreign trips worth $635,000. He repeatedly complained of having an unfair trial and sought termination of the proceedings, denying any wrongdoing.
Prior to his detention Saturday, Khan released a video statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, that his “arrest was expected & I recorded this message before my arrest.” He urged his followers not to sit silently at home and “continue peaceful protests until you get your rights and the biggest fundamental right, which is to elect your government of choice through the ballot.”
In an earlier statement on X this week, the former prime minister said: “My message to the nation on the ongoing ToshaKhana case where I have been continuously denied the Constitutional Right to Fair Trial and not even allowed to present witnesses in my defense."
He added: “The superior courts must intervene immediately to stop this miscarriage of justice in what feels like a military-styled mis-trial.”
Pakistani Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, addressing a hurriedly called news conference on Saturday, rejected allegations that the government had anything to do with the court ruling and insisted Khan was given full opportunity to defend himself.
PTI supporters were in the streets of the country’s major cities Saturday to protest their leader’s arrest, but there were no reports of violence.
Khan was briefly arrested in May in a separate case, sparking nationwide protests by his supporters and clashes with riot police. In some cities, protesters also stormed military installations, prompting a nationwide government crackdown on PTI workers and the detention of thousands of them, with more than 100 put on trial in controversial Pakistani military courts.
"Not the first time civilian prime ministers have been sentenced by the courts. Unfortunately, it won't be the last either," Ammar Ali Jan, a historian and political activist, said on social media site X in response to Saturday's court ruling.
"Nation still awaits the day when those who manufacture and discard political leaders will be held accountable by our courts," Jan said, referring to Pakistan's powerful military, which Khan repeatedly accused of being behind his removal from power and court cases subsequently instituted against him.
Military dictators have ruled Pakistan over nearly half of its 75-year history through coups against elected governments. Generals have influenced political happenings even when they are not in power and orchestrated the toppling of prime ministers because they had fallen out with the military.
The army has consistently and illegally intervened in national politics, former Pakistani military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa publicly admitted just days before stepping down last November after an extended term in office.
Khan's predecessor, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was also removed from office on corruption charges in 2017 before being sentenced to seven years in jail. Sharif also accused the military of orchestrating his conviction. He was allowed to leave prison for a few weeks in 2019 to seek medical treatment in London and remains there.
Senior party members have, in recent media interviews, admitted that Sharif's reconciliation with the Bajwa-led military enabled his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif to become the prime minister in April 2022 when lawmakers, including defectors, ousted Khan from office in a vote of no confidence.
The Sharif government and the military have since been accused of undermining press freedom in their bid to silence Khan.
"Mainstream news channels have ceased coverage of Khan following a de facto ban and pressure from the military," the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, said Friday.
The U.S.-based global monitoring group noted that it had documented "numerous press freedom violations since Khan's removal, resulting in an ongoing political crisis in Pakistan.
Sharif has reportedly proposed that parliament be dissolved on Aug. 9 before handing over power to a caretaker administration to oversee the upcoming general election in the country of about 230 million people.
Sharif is also severely criticized for granting more extraordinary powers to the Pakistani military and government intelligence agencies through hastily passed legislation before leaving office.
"They are militarizing the entire criminal justice system," Hina Jilani, who heads the county's independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, told local media this week.
In a formal statement, the commission quoted Jilani as saying that one of the bills passed by parliament at "breakneck speed" has criminalized defamation of the armed forces, including online.
"Additionally, the bill sanctions the armed forces' engagement in 'national development and advancement of national or strategic interest,' " Jilani said in a statement this week. "HRCP deplores this attempt to seek legislative approval for military involvement in areas to which it has no moral or political claim."
The CPJ on Friday also called on Pakistani lawmakers to reject or revise the bills in question for being detrimental to freedom of expression in the country.
"We are alarmed by the Pakistan government's apparent attempts to bulldoze four draft bills undermining press freedom through parliament ahead of the political transition scheduled for later this month," said Beh Lih Yi, CPJ's Asia program coordinator.
"There needs to be a substantive debate on the bills and their far-reaching impacts. Pakistan's lawmakers must ensure ample time to review the draft bills in consultation with civil society and journalists before coming to a vote," the international monitor said.