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EFSAS Commentary

The timing of the dissolution of Pakistan’s parliament hours after Imran Khan’s 3-year jail term leaves little to the imagination


Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi, on the advice of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, on 9 August approved dissolution of Pakistan’s parliament, thereby paving the way for the holding of fresh general elections in November.  Sharif’s decision to dissolve parliament came just hours after his predecessor, Imran Khan, was contentiously sentenced to 3 years in prison on corruption charges, a ruling that effectively banned Khan from holding public office for five years. The public mood, however, seems to suggest that Khan would have been a top contender in the upcoming vote if he were not prevented from contesting, and the finger of blame for his tactically timed arrest points directly at the Pakistani military establishment.

Khan became the seventh former Prime Minister to be arrested in Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was arrested and hanged in 1979, and even the current incumbent’s brother and 3-time premier Nawaz Sharif has been arrested several times on corruption allegations. If over the past decade an impression was gaining ground that democracy was eventually finding its feet in Pakistan, the events of the past year, which have included the targeting of Khan and the ruthless decimation of his political party the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), have left no one in doubt about the military establishment’s brutal and vice-like grip over power. The people of Pakistan are being made to pay the price for the spinelessness of the country’s political leadership, while the military establishment is yet again making it clear that people’s votes and voices count for little in its gluttonous and power-obsessed worldview.

Imran Khan was arrested from his Zaman Park residence in Lahore by the Punjab police on 5 August, shortly after an Islamabad trial court declared him guilty of “corrupt practices” in the Toshakhana case and sentenced him to three years in prison. In this case, which is one among more than 150 that have been filed against him, Khan has been accused of misusing his premiership to buy and sell gifts in State possession that were received during visits abroad and were worth more than 140 million Pakistani Rupees ($635,000).

Khan was absent from court when Additional District and Sessions Judge (ADSJ) Humayun Dilawar ruled in a short order that “The court finds it’s more than convincing that the complainant (the Election Commission of Pakistan – ECP) had provided confidence-inspiring, well-knitted and corroborated evidence, and so the charge against the accused has successfully been proven that the accused has committed offence of corrupt practices by making and publishing false statements/declaration in respect of assets acquired by way of gifts from Toshakhana and disposed of during years 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. He has been found guilty of corrupt practices by hiding the benefits he accrued from the national exchequer wilfully and intentionally. He cheated while providing information of gifts he obtained from Toshakhana which later proved to be false and inaccurate. His dishonesty has been established beyond doubt”. The court order added that the PTI chief was convicted under Section 174 (Offence of corrupt practices) of the Election Act, and was accordingly sentenced to three years in prison.

After the verdict, Imran Khan technically stands disqualified from holding any public office for five years under Article 63(1)(h) of Pakistan’s Constitution. The law states that “A person shall be disqualified from being elected or chosen as, and from being, a member of the Parliament if he has been, on conviction for any offence involving moral turpitude, sentenced to imprisonment for a term of not less than two years, unless a period of five years has elapsed since his release”. Khan, however, has the right to appeal the verdict, which he has already done. Interestingly, Reuters reported that Khan’s conviction came a day after Pakistan’s high court had temporarily halted the district court trial. It is not clear why the trial had proceeded despite the high court ruling.

The arrest was the latest in a series of blows that have weakened Khan’s political standing after he fell out with Pakistan’s powerful military, and his party has since splintered. In a handout issued after its emergency core committee meeting that was hastily convened after Khan’s arrest, the PTI said it had discussed the future plan of action and legal measures to secure Imran’s release. The party called for peaceful protests across the country within the ambit of the law and the Constitution and also appealed to the Supreme Court to hear its review petition against the maintainability of the Toshakhana case. The PTI said it had started acting on Imran’s instructions for its organisational and political plan of action, further adding that the entire nation had rejected the session court’s verdict. However,  unlike when Khan had briefly been detained in May this year and a strong public response, including direct targeting of military infrastructure and symbols, had resulted, the fear generated by the strong-arm retaliation by the Army to the May violence meant that there has been only a limited public response to the PTI’s call for protests this time.

In a pre-recorded video address released by his party after his arrest, Khan had asked his supporters to protest peacefully. He said, “By the time you hear this statement, they will have arrested me. I only have one request, one appeal for you. You must not sit quietly inside your homes. The struggle I am doing is not for my own self, it’s for my nation, for you. For the future of your children. If you don’t stand up for your rights, you will live lives of slaves and slaves don’t have a life”. In the post, Khan also made reference to the ‘London Plan’, a term he uses to refer to an alleged plot between current Army Chief General Asim Munir and Nawaz Sharif, who has been in self-exile in London since 2019, to oust him from politics. Khan’s deputy and former Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who the PTI said would lead the party in Khan’s absence, said their leader had been denied a fair trial. He asserted in a video address that “We have to struggle for his freedom - we have to fight legally and politically and move in a peaceful way in line with Imran Khan’s directives”.

Imran Khan’s lawyer Barrister Gohar Khan expressed disappointment and deemed the court’s order “a murder of justice”. He told the Pakistani daily Dawn the he “was very disappointed and disheartened”, adding that “We weren’t even given a chance. We weren’t even allowed to cross (question), to say anything in defence or conduct our arguments. I haven’t seen this kind of injustice before”. PTI lawyer Shoaib Shaheen said at a press conference that their witnesses were not allowed into the court, despite it being a fundamental right to present witnesses. He decried that justice was “being bulldozed and buried”, and alleged that the PTI was not given a “fair trial”.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) expressed “serious reservations in relation to the legality” of the judgment leading to Imran’s arrest. In a statement, SCBA President Barrister Abid S. Zuberi and Secretary Muqtedir Akhtar Shabbir said the judgment was issued in “blatant violation” of the Islamabad High Court’s order, in which the trial court judge was asked to re-examine the jurisdiction of the ECP’s complaint. “It is truly unfortunate that the Court has decided the case in absolute haste and without affording the accused a fair opportunity of hearing and in the absence of the counsel for the accused, which is in blatant violation of the accused’s fundamental rights as enshrined under Articles 4, 9, 10, 10A and 25 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan”, the statement read. It added, “such a hasty decision is against all settled principles of fairness, natural justice and due process of law and the timing of such a decision appears to be aimed at excluding political leaders from participating in upcoming elections”. The statement went on to say “That the historical trend of disqualification and ban of popular political leaders by the judiciary is against the principles of democracy and fair trial as enshrined under the Constitution. It is pertinent to remember that the judiciary is the guardian of the Constitution and the fundamental rights enshrined therein; therefore, such judgments will only lower the people’s faith in the judiciary to uphold justice”.

The Pakistan government insisted that Khan’s arrest was unrelated to the upcoming elections, but this argument found few takers. Addressing a press conference on the matter in Islamabad, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said that the arrest had followed a full investigation and proper legal proceedings in a trial court. “Let me make it clear that the entire investigation in the case took place over 12 to 13 months”, she said, adding that “There was no political motive of the government involved behind his arrest”.

International reactions to Khan’s arrest have been guarded. A United States (US) State Department spokesperson told Dawn that “The cases against Imran Khan and other politicians in Pakistan are an internal matter. We call for the respect of democratic principles and the rule of law in Pakistan, as we do around the world”. The United Kingdom (UK) said it was monitoring the situation. A Foreign Office spokesperson said that “The UK has a close and longstanding relationship with Pakistan. We support democratic principles and adherence to the rule of law. We are closely monitoring the situation”.

Khan has repeatedly said the army is targeting him and his party in a bid to keep him out of the elections and prevent him from returning to power. The army has denied the allegation. In May, PTI supporters had retaliated to Khan’s arrest by attacking military installations. The military’s backlash since then has been merciless. Thousands of PTI supporters have been arrested, with some facing prosecution in military courts. Dozens of PTI politicians, fearing arrest, have quit the party, while others have defected to different factions and condemned Khan’s behavior. The Washington Post said that voices sympathetic to Khan in the Pakistani media had “gone silent or been silenced”. While the military has regained control after the violent pro-Khan protests challenged its authority, the Pakistani leadership does not appear to have succeeded in breaking Khan’s popularity among voters and supporters of his party.

Al Jazeera assessed that many in Pakistan felt Khan’s arrest was the inevitable conclusion to his attempts to go up against Pakistan’s all-powerful military establishment, which has had a grip on Pakistani politics for decades. All previous Prime Ministers who have tried to take on the military have ended up in prison. It quoted Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani political analyst, as saying that “Many of us saw this verdict coming but it still casts a shadow over the upcoming elections. Khan is still the most popular leader in Pakistan and disqualifying him from running will raise questions over the fairness of the polls”. Pakistan may now also face weeks of political upheaval that could provide an opening for the country’s military to seize more control while an interim caretaker government takes over.

Aqil Shah wrote in Foreign Affairs that Khan’s distinct brand of politics — and popularity — may make him a unique threat to the military establishment. He said, “Once the army’s proxy, he has now gone rogue with a vengeance and is trying to tear apart the military’s institutional integrity by sowing dissension in its ranks against the army chief. The army is also probably concerned that Khan finds his main support base among the traditionally pro-military urban middle classes in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and the heartland of army recruitment”. Political analyst Arif Rafiq told the New York Times in June that “The primary aim here is to remove Khan from the political process, as he’s no longer reliably obedient and has amassed popular support that gives him political capital independent of the military”.

A Sunday editorial in Dawn aptly suggested that military-backed ‘law-fare’ may not defeat Khan, but it would certainly harm Pakistan’s democracy. It said, “The fact is that Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto were not, and Imran Khan will not be rendered irrelevant to Pakistanis over some technical knockout. The fate of a politician rests in the hands of their constituency, and no amount of external interference can change this simple relationship. The experiment was tried in the earlier two cases and failed, and the state seems to be repeating the same mistake, only to weaken a fraying social contract further”. Marvin G. Weinbaum, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan studies program at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., similarly wrote, “What seems undeniable is that respect for orderly democratic processes in Pakistan has suffered a particularly severe blow over the last 15 tumultuous months”. He postulated that for Pakistan, it might be a blow “from which it may not recover”.

Many Pakistanis are today feeling increasingly disenfranchised within their own country, and the grim reality for Pakistan and its people is that Imran Khan’s arrest will inevitably become yet another step towards widening the rapidly expanding divide between the Pakistani establishment and the people.