Islamabad: In a major setback for former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, a special court on Tuesday sentenced him and his deputy Shah Mahmood Qureshi to 10 years of imprisonment in the cipher case. The case pertains to the ex-PM brandishing a document alleging that it contains US involvement behind his ouster from power in 2022.
The development came with little more than a week left to Pakistan’s February 8 elections, where Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is contesting amid a state crackdown and without an electoral symbol. The sentence further dampens Imran’s already beleaguered hopes to contest the elections due to prior legal cases and indictments.
The special court had begun the cipher trial afresh last month at the Adiala district jail after Imran and Qureshi were indicted for a second time in the case on December 13, Dawn reported. The Pakistan Supreme Court had approved the post-arrest bails of Imran and Qureshi last month. While Imran remained in jail due to other cases lodged against him, Qureshi was manhandled and re-arrested in a fresh case related to May 9 riots.
The duo were first indicted in the case in October last year, to which they pleaded not guilty. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) termed the government’s notification for a jail trial “erroneous” and scrapped the entire proceedings, meaning that the legal proceedings would have to start afresh. After the Supreme Court decision, Justice Miangul Hasan Aurangzeb had restrained the special court from proceeding against the suspects till January 11 citing “legal errors”.
The decision was announced by special court Judge Abul Hasnat Zulqarnain during the hearing of the case held at the Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi. Khan’s PTI confirmed the development by saying that it was a “sham case with no access to media or public”.
“Legal team will challenge the decision in a higher court and hopefully will get this sentence suspended, given the poor proceedings of a case when Islamabad High Court had clearly annuled proceedings twice, ordered access to media and public but on the contrary, access of legal team was denied, and decision reached in a haste,” the party said in a WhatsApp message.
Imran’s troubled past
The former PM is facing several problems as his appeal against the rejection of his nomination papers from the constituencies of NA-122 (Lahore) and NA-89 (Mianwali) were rejected by the Lahore High Court (LHC) earlier this month, primarily on the grounds of being convicted in the Toshakhana corruption case, where he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment.
Imran’s nomination papers from NA-122 were also dismissed on the grounds of the proposer not being a voter from the constituency. The former PM’s Toshakhana sentence was suspended in August last year, but he was not freed from prison as he was undergoing a trial in the cipher case. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had disqualified Imran for five years after his Toshakhana conviction.
Khan who has been in jail since August last year was arrested on Tuesday by Rawalpindi police in at least a dozen cases on the May 9 violence, including the attack on the military’s General Headquarters (GHQ). According to the PTI, the state is using every possible tactic to stop its candidates from contesting the polls across the country.
On the other hand, Imran’s main rival and former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif has been cleared of all court cases and a lifetime ban from contesting the polls. Analysts say he appears to be the front runner, thanks to what they say is military support, an advantage in a country where army generals mostly decide on the making or breaking of governments. The army says it is apolitical.
This is Imran’s second conviction as he was previously convicted in the Toshakhana case on Aug 5, which was suspended by the IHC. However, a division bench had later rejected Imran’s petition seeking the suspension of the conviction. On the other hand, this is Qureshi’s first conviction.
Imran’s rivals gear up
However, as the embattled PTI faces uphill tasks, its major rivals — the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the PML-N — have already commenced nationwide campaigns and distributed tickets for national and provincial constituencies. Imran’s main rival and former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif has been cleared of all court cases and a lifetime ban from contesting the polls and is considered the frontrunner of the February elections.
The PPP and the PML-N are eyeing to form governments in the centre, with PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari confidently saying that the elections are now just between two parties as the PTI is out of the electoral race — since its candidates will be running independently.
Notably, the Pakistan National Assembly had 342 seats– 272 of which are directly elected, 60 are reserved for women and 10 for religious minorities. According to the country’s constitution, at least 70 seats reserved for women and religious minorities are allocated to the political parties as per their proportional representation. After fresh delimitation, the National Assembly (NA) would consist of 336 seats, including 266 general seats, 60 seats reserved for women, and 10 for non-Muslims, a decrease of six seats overall.
(with PTI inputs)