Imran Khan Sentenced to Prison, Likely Dashing Hopes of Political Comeback

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan was arrested on Saturday after a trial court sentenced him to three years in prison, a verdict likely to end his chances of running in upcoming general elections.

The police took Mr. Khan into custody from his home in the eastern city of Lahore soon after the court’s decision was announced in Islamabad.

The verdict is a climactic turn in a political showdown between Mr. Khan and Pakistan’s powerful military that has embroiled the country for over a year.

It comes on the heels of a monthslong intimidation campaign by the military aimed at hollowing out Mr. Khan’s political party and stifling the remarkable political comeback he has made since being ousted from office last year in a vote of no confidence.

Now, the prospect that Mr. Khan, a cricket star turned populist politician, will be disqualified from running in the country’s general elections — the next ones are expected this fall — has offered a major victory to a military establishment that appears intent on sidelining him from politics.

It has also sent a powerful message to Mr. Khan and his supporters, who have directly confronted and defied the military like few else in Pakistan’s 75-year history: The military is the ultimate hand wielding political power behind the government, and no amount of public backlash will change that.

“Imran Khan’s arrest marks a significant turning point in the state’s actions against P.T.I.,” said Zaigham Khan, a political analyst and columnist based in Islamabad, using the initials of Mr. Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. That effort seems “designed to hinder the P.T.I.’s chances in the upcoming elections,” he added.

In its ruling on Saturday, the trial court found the former prime minister guilty of hiding assets after illegally selling state gifts.

“The allegations against Mr. Khan are proven,” said Judge Humayun Dilawar, who announced the verdict in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The court also imposed a fine of around $355.

The case is related to an inquiry by the country’s election commission, which found last October that Mr. Khan had illegally sold gifts given to him by other countries when he was prime minister and concealed the profits from the authorities.

Mr. Khan has denied any wrongdoing. He and his lawyers had accused Judge Dilawar of bias and sought to have the case transferred to another judge. They are likely to appeal this ruling.

In a statement, Mr. Khan’s party rejected the verdict, calling it “the worst example of political revenge.”

Members of the country’s governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, welcomed the outcome. In a statement, the country’s information minister, Marriyum Aurangzeb, hailed Mr. Khan’s arrest and denied that it was linked to “political persecution” or that it was part of a plot to prevent the former prime minister from running in the country’s next elections.

“My message to Imran Khan is straightforward: Your time is up,” she said.

The verdict is the culmination of a nationwide political saga that has escalated since Mr. Khan was ousted in April 2022. In the months that followed, he drew thousands out to protests where he railed against the country’s powerful military establishment and accused Pakistan’s generals of orchestrating his fall from power — an accusation they deny.

Mr. Khan, who is facing an array of court cases, was briefly arrested earlier this year in a different one. That arrest, on May 9, set off violent protests across the country, as well as attacks on military installations. Days afterward, the country’s top court declared that the authorities had unlawfully detained Mr. Khan and ordered his release.

The protests channeling anger toward the military were widely considered to have crossed an unspoken red line of defiance — a rare rebuke in a country where few defy military leaders. Since then, Pakistan’s military establishment has staged an extensive crackdown.

Throngs of supporters of Mr. Khan were arrested in connection with the protests in May. Media personalities considered sympathetic to him said they were intimidated. And many prominent leaders of his party resigned — after they were arrested or said they had been threatened with criminal charges and arrests.

After Mr. Khan was arrested on Saturday in Lahore, the police in several cities were put on alert in case his supporters again took to the streets.

In a prerecorded message before his arrest in Lahore on Saturday, Mr. Khan urged his supporters to stage peaceful protests and not remain silent at home. In the port city of Karachi and in Peshawar, a few dozen supporters staged small protests.

But unlike when Mr. Khan was arrested in May, by Saturday evening there were no mass protests in support of Mr. Khan — a sign of the effectiveness of the military’s efforts to intimidate his supporters in recent months, analysts say.

In recent weeks, Pakistan’s governing coalition had signaled that it was considering postponing the fall elections so that the military’s crackdown on Mr. Khan’s party could continue and so that the coalition’s political leaders could be sure that he would not pose a major political threat in the race. But now, his arrest and likely disqualification may make that unnecessary, observers say.

“Khan’s removal from the scene may actually expedite the election process, potentially allowing them to be held within 90 days, if not sooner,” said Zaigham Khan, the political analyst. “What remains to be seen is whether he can obtain any immediate relief from the superior courts, where his sentence could be suspended.”

Source: nytimes

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