Pakistan dispatch: corruption verdict against ex-PM Imran Khan may end his political career Dispatches
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Pakistan dispatch: corruption verdict against ex-PM Imran Khan may end his political career

Law students and law graduates in Pakistan are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. Rabia Shuja holds an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Griffith College, Dublin and is Chief Correspondent for JURIST in Pakistan. She reports from Islamabad.

This past Saturday, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan was arrested after a trial court in Islamabad found him guilty in the Toshakhana reference case. The former premier was accused of selling state gifts worth over 154 million PKR during his term in office. The court sentenced Khan to a prison term of three years, and imposed a fine of 100,000 PKR for making false declarations of his assets to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

Additional Sessions Judge Humayun Dilawar also disqualified Khan from office for 5 years under Article 63(1)(h) of Pakistan’s Constitution, which states: “A person shall be disqualified from being elected or chosen as, and from being, a member of the Parliament if he has been, on conviction for any offense involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release.” In its judgment, the court stated that “Imran Khan has been found guilty of corrupt practices by hiding the benefits he accrued from the national exchequer wilfully and intentionally. His dishonesty has been established beyond doubt.”

In response to the verdict, PTI lawyers filed multiple appeals in an effort to overturn the conviction. Babar Awan, a member of Khan’s legal team, claimed that the court’s ruling was a “ridiculous verdict by a sham court”. He also asserted that the court failed to uphold the constitutional right to a fair trial, since the decision was made in the absence of Khan’s counsel. Thus, according to Awan, there is a high likelihood of the verdict being suspended following their appeal to the high court. Khan and his team maintain that the charges against him are politically motivated, with the military establishment and the coalition government making a collective effort to remove him from the political sphere.

The court’s verdict also raised several eyebrows within Pakistan’s legal community, with lawyers such as Abdul Moiz Jaferii stating that although the case against Khan was a relatively strong one, the methodology employed by the court was ‘farcical’. Indeed, he went on to say that deciding the case in absentia violated the Islamabad High Court’s (IHC) order to: ‘hear Imran’s lawyers on the merits and then decide accordingly.’

Supreme Court Advocate Basil Nabi Malik also weighed in on the decision, stating that the judgment will not bode well for the credibility of the judiciary. He likened it to the Panama judgment that led to the disqualification of former Prime Minister  Nawaz Sharif. He claimed that the Toshakhana judgment, much like the Panama decision, will be remembered as an act of injustice. He further stated: “…Judicial credibility is established by consistency and predictability of judicial precedent. This is not going to serve as an example of that.”

Even Khan’s staunchest critics have voiced their concerns over the judgment. Mohsin Dawar, a sitting member of the National Assembly, posted on ‘X’ (FKA Twitter), that ‘…politicians get discredited over such trivial matters while Generals get away with treason. Politicians keep getting used and then are discarded like Imran Khan. We keep going round and round in circles.’ Journalist Raza Ahmed Rumi also took to social media to denounce the trial court’s decision, saying “Another politician disqualified and sent to jail…why are only prime ministers treated in such a manner?… Not a great day. Nothing to rejoice”.

Although it is evident that there was substantial evidence against Khan in the Toshakhana case, his conviction was not made in the interest of justice, but rather in the interest of the establishment, who wish to remove him from politics. Many political analysts believe that Saturday’s verdict indicates that the State was desperate to ensure  Khan’s disqualification before the elections. Political commentator and journalist Cyril Almeida stated that the PTI chief’s arrest was inevitable as neither the coalition government nor the establishment could afford to have Khan campaign.

The arrest and subsequent disqualification of an elected Prime Minister is not novel in Pakistan. The country has a history of Prime Ministers being targeted on frivolous charges at the behest of the military establishment. In 1962, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was arrested under treason charges by General Ayub Khan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was charged with murder and arrested by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977. In 2018 Nawaz Sharif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi were also arrested under corruption charges during Imran Khan’s reign as PM. Now, Imran Khan who was once handpicked by the establishment to eliminate political opponents finds himself in the same predicament as his political rival, Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified in the Panama judgment five years ago.

On Tuesday, August 8th, the Election Commission of Pakistan issued a notification citing Saturday’s verdict and declared that Imran Khan had been disqualified under Article 63(1)(h) of the Constitution coupled with Section 232 of the Elections Act, 2017. On the same day, the IHC also accepted Khan’s appeal against the trial court’s verdict.

On Wednesday, PM Shehbaz Sharif dissolved parliament just three days before the conclusion of his term, prompting general elections to be held within the constitutional limit of  90 days. However, there are mounting concerns that these may be delayed following the release of the country’s latest census results which require new constituency boundaries to be drawn. The announcement has been widely criticized, with the opposition party accusing the ruling government of a deliberate delay in an effort to avoid facing Khan in the upcoming elections. The government has denied using such evasive tactics, and has stated that it is a constitutional requirement to hold elections under the latest census.

Despite his conviction, Khan’s popularity remains at an all-time high and further feeds into the narrative that he is the sole politician leading the fight for democracy and freedom. However, if he is not granted respite from the courts, his popularity will not suffice. Political analysts predicted that the Toshakhana case would sound the death knell for Khan’s political career. The verdict effectively puts an end to his electoral prospects, provided his appeal is unsuccessful. Even if the former premier is granted relief from the Islamabad High Court, with over 150 cases pending in the courts, and with top PTI leaders having left the party, Imran Khan seems to be swimming against the tide.