A Pakistani court has sentenced Imran Khan to 10 years in prison just days before the country’s general election, in what his party said was part of an escalating campaign to sideline the popular former prime minister.
Khan, who has been in jail since August and was already barred from standing in the February 8 general election, was convicted by a special court of violating the Official Secrets Act by leaking the contents of a diplomatic cable shortly before he was ousted as PM in 2022.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party said he denied the allegations and would appeal the conviction to the Islamabad High Court.
Analysts say Pakistani authorities and the country’s powerful military, which largely controls political decision-making from behind the scenes, have been trying to ensure Khan and the PTI are unable to put up a serious challenge in next week’s polls.
Khan’s latest conviction stems from allegations he violated state secrecy laws when he waved a diplomatic cable at a public rally in 2022. The cable, Khan said at the time, showed his removal from office was the result of a conspiracy involving the US, the then-opposition and the army. All three deny the claim.
The PTI called the conviction a pretext to prevent the former cricket star, who before the crackdown had been considered a favourite to form the next government, from staging a comeback.
Khan’s former foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, was also convicted of violating the secrecy law.
“This was done to try to create hopelessness in people that Imran Khan has been completely eliminated from the political landscape of Pakistan,” said Zulfiqar Bukhari, a senior PTI member. “We’re very hopeful that when it goes to the High Court it’ll be quashed because it’s a baseless case.”
Khan was removed as PM through a no-confidence vote in April 2022, but remains the country’s most popular politician. He was separately convicted to three years in jail on corruption charges last year. That judgment was later suspended, but he remains in jail.
Thousands of Khan’s supporters have also been arrested, senior PTI members have quit the party under pressure from the authorities, and it has been largely unable to get official permission to hold election rallies.
Analysts said the crackdown was the result of a falling-out between Khan and the military, which the former PM has repeatedly criticised since his ousting despite having previously long depended on its support.
Khan’s removal from the race leaves his arch-rival Nawaz Sharif, a three-time former prime minister, as a favourite to return to power in the elections.
Sharif was himself removed from office in 2017 and convicted of corruption, returning to Pakistan only in October after years in self-imposed exile.
The Supreme Court this month paved the way for Sharif to run again by scrapping a lifetime ban on people with criminal convictions from contesting elections, a move analysts described as part of a “backroom deal” designed to smooth his return.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a commentator on national affairs, said Khan’s latest conviction was “a political case that has produced a political verdict”.
“In 2017, Nawaz Sharif was convicted and later jailed, but today he is freely campaigning and wants to be the next prime minister,” he added.