Is it curtains for Imran Khan after a 10-year sentence?

By Mayank Chhaya

Barring a political miracle former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s career is over with him being sentenced to 10 years in prison for leaking state secrets. He is already serving a three-year sentence after being convicted of corruption.

It is a spectacular fall for once a superstar cricketer turned politician, not to mention a playboy in dalliance with a bevy of attractive women globally. What adds a particularly dramatic twist to the Khan story is that he was found guilty of leaking state secrets that he claimed showed a U.S. plot to oust him in 2022 for speaking out against the country’s policies.

The fact that Khan’s sentencing came barely ten days before Pakistan holds general elections could mean that the once disgraced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would return to power. Sharif was in a self-imposed exile until recently when he returned from London in October 2023. He was away from Pakistan for four years as a fugitive from 2019 following his conviction and a 10-year prison sentence on corruption charges.

It is a risible state of affairs in Pakistan where a three-time prime minister, who could have been in prison for ten years without going into exile returns, even as another one, Khan is sentenced to ten years.

Raoof Hasan, a spokesperson for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party told this correspondent they had apprehended that the former prime minister’s freedom was in great peril for a long time unless his party managed to win the February 8 elections. However, even that was uncertain because the PTI has been stripped of its party symbol and practically derecognized.

Khan’s state secrets case became known as the cipher case since it involved the alleged leaking of secret diplomatic correspondence sent by Pakistan’s U.S. ambassador during his tenure as prime minister. The claim was that Khan was sought to be ousted by Washington via a no-confidence motion in parliament. Khan had claimed that Washington hatched a conspiracy with his political opponents as well as the military to oust him.

At a rally in March 2022, Khan was seen waving a piece of paper, purportedly a secret cable from the Pakistan mission in Washington, indicating such a conspiracy. A month later, Khan was ousted. Since then, it has been a harrowing collapse in his political and personal fortunes, including an alleged assassination attempt that left him wounded in one leg.

With the latest sentencing, the 71-year-old Khan now stares into a political abyss because if he indeed serves the full 10-year-term, he would be 81 by the time he comes out. Of course, Pakistan’s prime ministers and top politicians have been known to be in and out of prison as the country perpetually witnesses an unseemly battle between the all-powerful military and politically establishment.

PTI spokesperson Raoof Hasan has consistently spoken about a systematic crackdown against Khan’s party by the government and its law enforcement agencies to essentially finish them for good via mass arrests and police cases.

The February 8 elections are expected to see Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N) do well amid growing worries that this would be a “selection” and not an “election.” It is not clear how the simmering tensions between Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother, former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif may be resolved in the event of a PML (N) victory.

According to Hasan, who is a well-respected political and strategic affairs expert, it is possible that Nawaz Sharif may be made prime minister for a short term in case his party wins even as the brothers try to sort out their differences.

Pakistan’s economy has been in a series of dire crises with the country’s exchequer virtually empty and its leaders having to ask friendly countries for bailouts. The country’s problems are profoundly diverse and deep-rooted including childhood mortality, stunted growth, abysmal education and poor health infrastructure. According to the World Bank, Seven percent of children before their 5th birthday. Forty percent of children under 5 suffer from stunted growth. Some 78 percent of 10-year-old children cannot read age-appropriate text. Over 20 million children are out of school.

With that as the backdrop and its politics being in perpetual ferment, not many in the country expect the February 8 elections to turn things around soon. The subterranean and open resentments as often manifest in protests by Khan’s PTI are unlikely to calm down in the near term.

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