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Pakistan court jails ex-PM Imran Khan for 10 years ahead of election

A Pakistan court jailed Imran Khan for 10 years for leaking state secrets, the harshest sentence the popular former prime minister and cricket superstar has received and announced just days before a general election.

The special court found Khan, 71, guilty of making public the contents of a secret cable sent by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington to the government in Islamabad, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party said. Former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was also sentenced to 10 years in the same case.

Khan had earlier been sentenced to three years in jail in a corruption case in August, which ruled him out of the public spotlight ahead of the Feb. 8 election.

The court is likely to issue a written verdict within a day or two. Khan’s PTI party said it would challenge the ruling.

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“We don’t accept this illegal decision,” Khan’s lawyer, Naeem Panjutha, posted on social media platform X.

The PTI has not called for protests or demonstrations before the election. A bomb in Pakistan’s Balochistan region killed three PTI members on Tuesday, the party said, hours after Khan was sentenced. There were no details of who was responsible.

Khan’s aide Zulfikar Bukhari told Reuters that the legal team was given no chance to represent Khan or cross-examine witnesses. The proceedings were carried out in maximum security Adiala jail in Rawalpindi.

Another of Khan’s lawyers, Ali Zafar, told ARY television that given the circumstances of the trial and sentencing, the chances of the case being quashed on appeal were “100%”.

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Bukhari called the conviction an attempt to weaken support for Khan. “People will now make sure they come out and vote in larger numbers,” he told Reuters.

Khan was previously sentenced to three years in a corruption case, which had already ruled him out of the election next week.

His legal team was hoping to get him released from jail, where he has been since August last year, but the latest conviction means that is unlikely even as the charges are contested in a higher court.

The party of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Khan’s main political opponent, said the verdict was not harsh enough.

“I think, based on his carelessness and crime – pertaining to important national interests – this is a very light sentence,” Ahsan Iqbal, a senior Sharif aide, said in a TV interview.

MULTIPLE CASES

Analysts believe Sharif’s party is the frontrunner to form the next government. Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, were convicted and jailed over graft allegations days before the last general election in 2018. Analysts say that that helped Khan win, while Khan’s sentence now helps Sharif. Both blame the military.

Khan’s sentencing just before the polls will “raise questions about the election’s credibility”, said Mazhar Abbas, a Karachi-based analyst.

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Pakistan’s recovery from an economic crisis depends on political stability. The election comes as Pakistan is navigating a tricky recovery path under a $3 billion International Monetary Fund bailout that helped it narrowly avert a sovereign default last year.

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Khan has been fighting dozens of cases since he was ousted from power in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in 2022.

Khan says the secret cable mentioned in the case was proof of a conspiracy by the Pakistani military and the U.S. government to topple his government in 2022 after he visited Moscow, just before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Washington and the Pakistan military deny the accusations.

Khan has previously said the contents of the cable appeared in the media from other sources.

Khan’s PTI suffered a major setback this month when a court upheld the Election Commission’s decision to strip the party of its traditional election symbol, the cricket bat.

His candidates are now contesting as independents, many of them on the run amid what the party calls a crackdown backed by the military. The military denies this.

Khan’s media team posted a message from the jailed leader on X ahead of the verdict.

“These people want to provoke you by giving me a harsh sentence in this case so that you go out on the streets and protest, then add unknown people to the crowd and then do another false flag operation,” the post said.

In May last year, the first time Khan was arrested, his supporters were accused of rioting, and hundreds were arrested and tried. Khan denies his supporters were part of the mob.

Many of them have faced arrest while attending subsequent party rallies or demonstrations.

READ:  Pakistan cracks down on Imran Khan's supporters after violence

Khan urged his supporters to vote for candidates backed by him. “This is your war and this is your test that you have to take revenge for every injustice by your vote on February 8 while remaining peaceful,” the post on X said.

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By GIBRAN NAIYYAR PESHIMAM and ARIBA SHAHID

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