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Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan gets 14-year sentence in third conviction

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan listens to a member of the media during a talk with reporters regarding the current political situation and the ongoing cases against him at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 3, 2023.
K.M. Chaudary
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan listens to a member of the media during a talk with reporters regarding the current political situation and the ongoing cases against him at his residence in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 3, 2023.

Updated January 31, 2024 at 1:36 AM ET

ISLAMABAD — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife were sentenced on Wednesday to 14 years in prison for corruption, his lawyer and prison officials said, a day after another special court convicted Khan of leaking state secrets and gave him a 10-year prison sentence.

The latest conviction and sentencing were Khan's third since 2022 when he was ousted from power.

Khan and his wife were accused in the most recent case of retaining and selling state gifts when the former premier was in power.

The court also disqualified Khan for years from holding any public office, ahead of Pakistan's Feb. 8 parliamentary elections. Khan's lawyer Babar Awan said the former prime minister was convicted and sentenced in such a hurry that the judge did not wait for the arrival of his legal team.

He said Khan's basic human and fundamental rights had been violated, and that the latest conviction and sentencing would be challenged in higher courts.

"It seems the judge was in a hurry to announce the verdict," he said.

Zulfiqar Bukhari, the chief spokesperson for Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, also confirmed the conviction and sentencing.

The latest development came three weeks after Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi, were indicted on graft charges for retaining state gifts including jewelry and watches from Saudi Arabia's government, authorities said.

The latest court order was another blow to Khan. He and Bibi had pleaded not guilty when the charges were read out at a court at the prison in the garrison city of Rawalpindi earlier this month.

Khan briefly attended the court hearing when the judge announced the verdict.

Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in 2022, is not on the ballot because he is already serving a three-year prison term — and more than 150 other cases are still pending against him. The former cricket star nonetheless remains a potent political force because of his grassroots following and anti-establishment rhetoric.

Pakistan saw violent demonstrations after Khan's arrest last year, and authorities have cracked down on the Islamist politician's supporters and party since then, making them wary of staging new rallies.

The Feb. 8 elections come at a sensitive time in Pakistan, which is mired in an economic crisis that Khan's successor, Shehbaz Sharif, struggled to manage. Sharif was only able to get a bailout from the International Monetary Fund by agreeing to a substantial increase in tariffs on gas and electricity that led to alarming price hikes on everyday goods and made his party unpopular.

Khan was accused of exposing state secrets

On Tuesday, Khan was convicted in what is popularly known as the cipher case, in which he was accused of exposing state secrets by waving a confidential document at a rally. The document has not been made public but is believed to be diplomatic correspondence between the Pakistani ambassador to Washington and the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad.

Khan claimed the document was proof he was being threatened and that his ouster was a U.S. conspiracy, allegedly executed by the military and the government in Pakistan. American and Pakistani officials have denied the claim.

A special court at the prison in the garrison city of Rawalpindi where Khan is being held announced the verdict, according to Zulfiqar Bukhari, chief spokesman for Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI. During the trial, Bukhari said, even some of the members of Khan's legal team were denied access to the court. Journalists were also barred from covering the proceedings.

A senior official in the party, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who was accused of manipulating the contents of the diplomatic cable to gain political advantage, was also convicted and given a 10-year sentence.

One of Khan's sisters, Aleema Khan, denounced the trial and said her brother was denied a fair hearing. Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Khan, she said, adding that the verdict was delivered in haste.

She urged Khan's supporters to turn out in large numbers at the polls on Feb. 8 and vote for PTI candidates in solidarity with her brother. Qureshi's family similarly denounced his verdict and vowed to challenge it in court.

Khan has maintained his innocence, saying he did not disclose the exact contents of the cable. His party dismissed said Khan's legal team plans to appeal the conviction before the Islamabad High Court on Wednesday.

Other charges against Khan range from contempt of court to terrorism and inciting violence.

Khan's legal troubles may hurt voter turnout

Despite discontent with the government, analysts say turnout in the upcoming election may remain low since Khan is the only one in his party who had the charisma to attract the masses.

"The dejected and disappointed supporters of Imran Khan will stay away from the voting because they have a fear in their mind that their party is not going to win the elections," said Azim Chaudhry, a political analyst, calling PTI a "leaderless party."

Pakistan's human rights commission has said there is little chance of a free and fair parliamentary election since so many candidates from Khan's party have been rejected.

PTI said in a statement that it stands with Khan and Qureshi, "who defended Pakistan and stood for real independence." The party described the proceedings as a "sham trial" and said the judge did not even allow Khan's and Qureshi's lawyers to defend them.

However, the party asked his supporters to remain peaceful and not resort to violence.

"We should harness and channel these energies for the polling day" to ensure that Khan's candidates win the vote "with a thumping majority," said Omar Ayub, a longtime supporter.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]