Pakistan ex-PM Imran Khan sentenced to 10 years jail

Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan told followers to 'take revenge for every injustice with your vote' (Arif ALI)
Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan told followers to 'take revenge for every injustice with your vote' (Arif ALI)

Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in prison, less than two weeks before the country votes in an election his party has been hamstrung from contesting.

Pakistan goes to the polls next Thursday in a ballot already marred by allegations of rigging, with Khan barred from running and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party subject to a massive crackdown.

"You have to take revenge for every injustice with your vote on February 8," Khan said in a statement posted on his X profile.

"Tell them that we are not sheep that can be driven with a stick."

Khan was disqualified from standing over a previous graft conviction, one of dozens of court challenges he says have been orchestrated to prevent his return to office after a campaign of defiance against Pakistan's military kingmakers.

Tuesday's conviction for leaking classified state documents was handed down inside Adiala jail, where Khan has been confined for much of the time since his August arrest.

The same sentence was given to Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the former PTI vice-chairman who served as foreign minister during Khan's four-year premiership ending in 2022.

PTI lawyers said they were ousted from the proceedings, denying their leaders fair representation.

"This is unconstitutional, this is against the principles of natural justice," barrister Salman Safdar told AFP.

- 'Murder of justice' -

About 127 million Pakistanis are eligible to vote in nine days, with Khan and PTI at the centre of debate despite being squeezed out of the limelight.

"This is a murder of justice," said Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a rights activist and political analyst. "But his popularity among the people will grow in leaps and bounds as his sympathisers will increase."

When Khan was first arrested in May last year, riots broke out across the country.

But his street power was killed by a military crackdown which saw thousands of supporters detained -- 100 of whom are facing closed-door military trials -- and dozens of senior leaders forced underground.

In Khan's northwestern power base province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, voters remained bullish about his prospects.

"Imposing a sentence will not affect Imran Khan and his party," predicted 33-year-old welder Inayatullah Khan in Peshawar. "If he were in a coffin instead of jail, I would still vote for him."

Tuesday's sentence "will only prompt voters to express their anger on the ballot paper", added 37-year-old pharmaceutical worker Alif Rahman.

Khan had accused the powerful military -- with whom he ruled in partnership for much of his tenure -- of orchestrating his ousting in a US-backed conspiracy.

He touted diplomatic cables as apparent proof of his claim, prompting his prosecution under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act which resulted in Tuesday's sentence.

He also alleged the top brass plotted an assassination bid which wounded him, but failed to provide any evidence.

- Muted campaign -

On Tuesday, officials said a bombing near a PTI rally killed four people and wounded six others in the Balochistan provincial capital of Quetta. The Islamic State (IS) group claimed the attack, according to the SITE Intelligence monitoring group.

PTI said three of its activists had been killed in the blast, just hours after Khan was sentenced.

Pakistan's election commission said it was investigating.

As a result of the ongoing crackdown, PTI has moved most of its campaigning online, where it has been bogged down by state-imposed internet blackouts.

The party founded by former cricket star Khan has also been stripped of its cricket bat election symbol -- in a nation where literacy lags, making icons vital for identifying candidates on ballot papers.

When state media reported Khan's Tuesday conviction they did not use his name, obeying strict censorship measures that have alarmed rights monitors.

Nawaz Sharif -- head of one of the two dynastic parties that have historically helmed Pakistan -- has returned from self-imposed exile and seen his myriad convictions dissolve in the courts.

Analysts say it is a sign the three-time former prime minister is the favoured candidate of the military, which has directly ruled Pakistan for just under half its history.