Police have arrested Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan in the eastern city of Lahore after a court sentenced him to three years in prison for illegally selling state gifts.
The 70-year-old cricketer-turned-politician was accused of misusing his premiership from 2018 to 2022 to buy and sell gifts in state possession that were received during visits abroad and worth more than 140 million Pakistani rupees ($497,500).
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“His dishonesty has been established beyond doubt,” judge Humayun Dilawar wrote in the ruling. “He has been found guilty of corrupt practices by hiding the benefits he accrued from national exchequer wilfully and intentionally.”
The verdict includes a 100,000-rupee fine ($355) which, if not paid, could amount to a further six months in jail.
Khan’s lawyer Intezar Panjotha said police arrested Khan at his residence in Lahore. Pakistani media described police surrounding his home after the verdict was released.
“We are filing a petition against the decision in high court,” Panjotha added.
In a video recorded before his arrest and posted on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, Khan called on his supporters to take to the streets in protest.
“I only have one request, one appeal for you. You must not sit quietly inside your homes. The struggle I am doing is not for my own self, it’s for my nation, for you. For the future of your children,” he said.
“If you don’t stand up for your rights, you will live lives of slaves and slaves don’t have a life.”
In the post, Khan made reference to the “London Plan”, a term he uses to refer to an alleged plot between current army chief General Asim Munir and three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has been in London since 2019 in self-exile, to oust him from politics. He has yet to provide evidence of its existence.
Chairman Imran Khan’s message:
My arrest was expected & I recorded this message before my arrest.
It is one more step in fulfilling London Plan but I want my party workers to remain peaceful, steadfast and strong.
We bow before no one but Allah who is Al Haq. We believe in… pic.twitter.com/1kqg6HQVac
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) August 5, 2023
‘Law of the jungle’
It is the second time the popular opposition leader has been detained this year.
His arrest and detention for several days in May over a separate case sparked intense political turmoil. Deadly clashes erupted between supporters and police and several military installations were targeted.
In an interview with Al Jazeera following the events, Khan said he was not arrogant enough to believe the country would not survive without him.
“All I know is that my struggle [has lasted] for 27 years and the main gist of this struggle is that without rule of law countries don’t prosper,” he said.
“A civilised society is where everybody is equal before the law. But in Pakistan, unfortunately from the beginning, we have had the law of the jungle.”
There have been no reports of emerging protests in any of the major cities immediately after Saturday’s arrest.
Criminal case against Khan
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder, reporting from Islamabad, said protocol required prime ministers to store all gifts in the state’s safe house, while Khan is accused of having sold them at a profit.
The objects allegedly included watches, perfumes, diamond jewellery and dinner sets. Khan has said he legally purchased the items.
Hyder added thousands of protesters who reacted to Khan’s previous arrest on May 9 were facing serious charges, with some currently standing trial in military courts.
“It’s going to be interesting to see whether there will be a strong reaction or not [this time],” he said. “So far, just a few dozen of his supporters gathered outside his residence shouting slogans. We are monitoring the situation but at the moment we do not expect a strong reaction.”
Babar Awan, a member of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and of Khan’s legal team, said the ruling was a “ridiculous verdict by a sham court”.
“Imran Khan was not given a fair trial, which according to the country’s constitution is the right of every citizen,” Awan told Al Jazeera.
Khan was not present in court for the hearing. Pakistani law does not provide for the possibility of holding trials in absentia, under which he was charged.
Therefore, Awan said, there was “every likelihood of suspension of the verdict and early release of Imran Khan” following their appeal to the high court.
More than 150 cases were brought against the former prime minister since he lost a no-confidence vote and was removed from office in April last year.
He has denied any wrongdoing, saying the charges are politically motivated. A conviction in the case could end his chances of participating in national elections that have to be held before early November.
Senior PTI leader Asad Umar also criticised the ruling in a post on X.
“Today’s decision does not meet the basic principle of law and justice should be seen. This decision will not stand in the Supreme Court. And meaningful decisions about politicians are made in the hearts of the people, not in the courts,” he wrote.
Lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii said while the case against Khan was relatively strong compared to other pending charges, the methodology used by the court was “farcical”.
The judge could have ordered Khan to present himself at the trial or could have requested him to be brought in by police. Had he then failed to appear, the court would have been legitimised to proceed with the trial in absentia.
“What he absolutely should not have done was to proceed with the ruling in his absence” and risk it be invalidated, the lawyer said.
Lead up to the election
Khan has repeatedly said the army is targeting him and his party in a bid to keep him out of the elections and prevent him from returning to power. The army denied the allegation.
Lahore-based political analyst Benazir Shah said Saturday’s verdict “raises suspicion that the state is in a hurry to disqualify Khan and ensure that he does not participate in the upcoming general election”.
Shah told Al Jazeera that Pakistan has a history of “disqualifying elected prime ministers on far less serious charges at the behest of Pakistan’s powerful military”.
Political commentator Cyril Almedia said the arrest had become “inevitable” as neither the government nor the military establishment would risk having him free and able to campaign.
However, Shah said even if Khan were to remain behind bars, he could still pose a risk to his rivals by throwing his weight behind independent or lesser-known candidates.
“One thing is clear,” she added. “Khan himself will not be allowed to come back to power by the military – at least in the upcoming polls.”
Additional reporting by Abid Hussain in Islamabad