ISLAMABAD (AP) — The political future of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan was thrown into doubt Saturday when police arrested him at home after a court handed him a three-year jail sentence for asset concealment.
The prison sentence could see Khan barred from politics as the law says people with a criminal conviction cannot hold or run for public office. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, condemned the ruling and said it will challenge the decision in a superior court.
While a superior court can suspend the conviction, it’s the country’s election body that can ultimately disqualify Khan from politics.
Efforts to put Khan behind bars have been stepped up ahead of elections expected later this year. His popularity and large support base, combined with his ability to mobilize massive crowds, pose a threat to the ruling coalition and could potentially polarize the electorate.
The Islamabad court issued the arrest warrant after convicting Khan. Police moved quickly to take the politician from his home in the eastern city of Lahore to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, senior police officer Ali Nasir Rizvi said. Local information minister, Amir Mir, said Khan was being taken to Lahore airport to be transported to the capital.
It’s the second time Khan has has been detained this year.
Since his ouster from power in a no-confidence vote in parliament in April 2022, Khan has been slapped with more than 150 legal cases, including several on charges of corruption, terrorism and inciting people to violence over deadly protests in May that saw his followers attack government and military property across the country. The cricket star-turned-politician remains the leading opposition figure despite his ouster.
A PTI spokesman, Rauf Hasan, described the asset concealment trial as the “worst in history and tantamount to the murder of justice.”
Information Minister Maryam Aurangzeb denied Khan’s arrest had anything to do with upcoming elections. She said Khan had been given every opportunity to defend himself against the asset concealment charges. “Instead Imran Khan used the time to delay the court proceedings and went back and forth to the high court and supreme court to halt this case,” she said.
Aurangzeb added that Khan has been “proven guilty of illegal practices, corruption, concealing assets and wrongly declaring wealth in tax returns.”
In Lahore, a group of pro-Khan lawyers reached his Zaman Park home and chanted slogans protesting his conviction and arrest. In the same city, supporters of a rival political party handed out sweets to celebrate the detention.
His former political secretary Aun Chaudhry said Saturday’s events will aid political stability, while Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari described the day’s developments as comeuppance for Khan.
But a former PTI government minister, Ali Mohammad Khan, said the opposition leader had been denied justice. “Khan’s conviction will be quashed and he will be released soon,” he said.
Khan’s party released a video message showing him at his Lahore home behind a desk and with the Pakistani and PTI flags in the background. It wasn’t immediately clear when the recording was made.
He told his supporters he would be in jail by the time the message reached them and that they should not stay quietly in their homes. “I am not doing this for my freedom,” he said. “I am doing it for my nation, you, your children’s future. If you don’t stand up for your rights, you will live the life of slaves and slaves do not have a life.”
He urged people to peacefully protest until they get their rights, namely a government of their choice through voting and “not the one like today’s occupying power.”
Pakistan has seen its share of former prime ministers arrested over the years and interventions by its powerful military.
Khan is the seventh former prime minister to be arrested in Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arrested and hanged in 1979. The current prime minister’s brother, Nawaz Sharif, who also served as prime minister, was arrested several times on corruption allegations.