The former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has been sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of having exposed official state secrets, his party said on Tuesday.
"Former prime minister Imran Khan and PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) vice-president [Shah Mahmood] Qureshi have been sentenced to 10 years each inside prison in the cypher case," a PTI spokesperson told AFP.
The sentencing comes as Pakistan approaches elections slated for February 8.
Imran Khan's legal troubles
"We will challenge today's court proceedings before the Supreme Court," PTI Chairman Barrister Gohar Khan said.
Khan was sentenced to three years in August after being convicted of corruption, but a court suspended that jail term.
Khan and Qureshi have pleaded not guilty ever since being indicted for exposing state secrets in October. Khan was granted bail in the case in December. But he remained behind bars due to the various other legal troubles he was facing since being ousted from his position as prime minister in a no-confidence vote in April 2022.
The 71-year-old cricket star-turned-politician has claimed that the charges against him were intended to stop him from running in the upcoming election. He also said he had been targeted by a US-backed conspiracy over his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Osama Malik, a legal expert in Islamabad, called the verdict "excessive, [but] not entirely unexpected," telling DW that "Imran Khan had admitted on television about misplacing the encrypted diplomatic cables."
Zulfi Bukhari, a senior member of the PTI, told DW that Khan's lawyers had not been allowed to speak on his behalf or cross-examine the witnesses, but added that the decision came from "a lower court, and it's already been appealed in a higher court and the supreme court which we know will find justice."
He called the lower court "clearly manipulated" and said that the decision had been "pre-determined," adding that the cypher document which is at the center of the leaked secrets conviction had already been "declassified" by the government.
'No free and fair elections'
"We foresee that the sentence will have a positive impact on us and strengthen us. We will ensure to increase the number of voters reaching polling stations to vote for PTI and we will fight for the free political participation of the people in this process," PTI spokesperson Raoof Hasan told DW.
"We believe that there will be no free and fair elections," he added, pointing out that many PTI leaders have either been jailed or are threatened with arrest. "We have not been allowed to campaign freely and carry out political activities."
Qamar Cheema, an Islamabad-based political analyst, said the verdict will put Khan's party in a "disadvantageous position."
"The political environment seems to favor Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto, as voters seem to believe that Khan's party cannot win the elections. Swing voters will shift to parties which have clear chances of winning the elections," he told DW.
What role does the military play in Pakistan's elections?
Khan remains one of the most popular politicians in Pakistan and despite being behind bars — and thus blocked from standing in the election — he still wields huge political power.
His supporters have regularly protested in the street, but the PTI party has also faced its own crackdown.
In mid-January, a Pakistani court ruled that the party must drop its cricket bat symbol, effectively forcing the candidates to run as independents without their famous symbol that had helped the many illiterate voters identify the party.
The key player in Pakistani politics is the powerful military that has held the reigns of power for decades — sometimes doing away with elections entirely.
Khan's fate has been tied to his relationship with the generals who once favored him but with whom he has since fallen out.
The experience of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was previously removed from power and who fled into exile, has been somewhat reversed as he is now considered the favorite in February's vote and his past falling out with the military appears to have been forgiven.
Additional reporting by Haroon Janjua from Islamabad.
ab/nm (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)