What now for Imran Khan?

Imran Khan hat sich in Pakistan mit dem mächtigen Militär überworfen - nun verurteilt ein Gericht den Ex-Regierungschef zu drei Jahren Gefängnis. Seine Anhänger wittern ein Komplott.
Imran Khan hat sich in Pakistan mit dem mächtigen Militär überworfen - nun verurteilt ein Gericht den Ex-Regierungschef zu drei Jahren Gefängnis. Seine Anhänger wittern ein Komplott.

Imran Khan has fallen out with Pakistan's powerful military – now a court has sentenced the ex-premier to three years in prison. His supporters suspect a plot. By Tobias Matern

By Tobias Matern

Imran Khan sensed it was coming. In recent months, he has faced one trial after the other, with 180 cases pending against him – as he himself described the situation in interview with the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung in July 2023. "Sooner or later I will go to prison, because I won't be able to defend myself against all these cases," Pakistan's ex-prime minister said then. He maintains that every single case being brought against him is groundless and politically motivated.

Over the weekend his prediction came true. A court in Islamabad sentenced the charismatic and controversial politician and former cricket star to three years in prison, in absentia, for alleged corruption offences. According to Pakistan's police, Khan was arrested at his residence in Lahore and put behind bars.

For Khan and his followers, he is the victim of a conspiracy. The 70-year-old politician, ousted in 2022 by a vote of no confidence in parliament, is up against the country's two powerful political dynasties, the Bhutto-Zardari and Sharif families, both of which have aligned themselves with the all-powerful military.

Chairman Imran Khan’s message:

My arrest was expected & I recorded this message before my arrest.

It is one more step in fulfilling London Plan but I want my party workers to remain peaceful, steadfast and strong.

We bow before no one but Allah who is Al Haq. We believe in… pic.twitter.com/1kqg6HQVac

— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) August 5, 2023


"He is just too popular at the moment"

"The verdict was handed down without our legal arguments being heard," said Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari, formerly a minister in Khan's cabinet, after the court ruling on Saturday. Khan will appeal the verdict, he said. If it becomes final, Khan will not be allowed to hold political office for the next five years.

The former premier is accused of concealing income from the sale of state gifts. The whole spectacle, according to Bukhari, serves one purpose only: "Imran Khan is to be kept out of the elections, he is just too popular at the moment."

In fact, only a few days ago, incumbent prime minister Shehbaz Sharif announced that parliament would be dissolved next week and new elections held.

Yet another drama is already unfolding in Pakistan, however, as new census figures are to be taken into account for the vote – in which case elections will not be able to be held within the prescribed 90 days. The incumbent government, with the support of the military, is now attempting to eliminate Khan politically, Bukhari says.

Khan won the elections in 2018 and became prime minister. At the time, he was able to triumph with the backing of the army, without whose involvement nuclear power Pakistan takes no major decisions.

Despite his poor record in government, Khan, a populist beloved among large sections of the population, succeeded in breaking the power of the Bhuttos and Sharifs. In recent decades, these great political dynasties – know generally for their incompetence – had taken alternate stints in government.

Rally in solidarity with Imran Khan in Lahore in May (image: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
"Zu beliebt": Neutrale Beobachter in Pakistan sind überzeugt, dass Imran Khan auch die nächsten Wahlen, sollte er antreten dürfen, gewinnen würde. Die Analysten unterstreichen, dass er oft populistisch gegen die USA austeile und sich ideologisch nicht deutlich genug von den Taliban distanziere, die seit dem katastrophalen Abzug des Westens im Nachbarland Afghanistan seit zwei Jahren wieder an der Macht sind.

"If you don't stand up for your rights, you will live lives of slaves"

Both families have faced allegations of corruption. They have either crossed swords repeatedly with the military or struck a temporary deal, as is the case at the moment. After Khan's overthrow in April 2022, the Bhuttos and Sharifs formed a governing alliance, despite having periodically been at odds with each other in the past. Now, a common foe has brought them together.

Khan became a national hero in Pakistan when he captained the national cricket team to the World Cup title in 1992.

Once his sporting career was over, he worked persistently to build his political career, preferring to remain in the country even when it was under military rule and he would have been more comfortable in exile. He intends to see out the current conflict: "I refuse to leave the country," he said recently.

Were Khan to be allowed to run, neutral observers in Pakistan are convinced he would emerge victorious from the next elections too. Although analysts are quick to point out his populist attacks on the U.S., not to mention his failure to distance himself enough ideologically from the Taliban, who seized power in neighbouring Afghanistan two years ago, precipitating the West's disastrous withdrawal, they don't see Khan as corrupt.

"They're afraid of him," says one analyst about the country's powerful establishment. Hence, the concerted efforts to keep him out of politics.

Khan's team released a video message from the ex-premier after his arrest: "I'll be in jail by the time this message reaches you." And he called on his supporters to protest: "If you don't stand up for your rights, you will live lives of slaves. You must continue peaceful protest." The ousted prime minister knows very well: to still be in with a chance, he needs the support of the masses.

Tobias Matern

© Suddeutsche Zeitung/Qantara.de 2023