Former PM (and sports star) Imran Khan convicted again as election nears


Former Pakistani prime minister and cricket superstar Imran Khan has been sentenced to ten years in jail for leaking official secrets (plus another 14 years for corruption), just before the country’s general election next Thursday 8 February.

This is intriguing for a few big reasons.  

First, there’s the charge: violating Pakistan’s Official Secrets Act. Prosecutors say Khan shared the contents of a diplomatic cable at a political rally just before he was ousted in 2022. Waving the cable (from Pakistan’s ambassador to the US), he told supporters it was proof of a secret plot to unseat him.

Second, there’s the secret trial: behind closed doors, in a jail, with government-appointed prosecution and defence teams, and no chance for Khan’s lawyers to cross-examine witnesses.

Third, there’s the timing: Pakistan’s election is next week. Khan was already serving a sentence for selling official gifts, including a $2M watch (!) he got from the Saudi crown prince. So he wasn’t able to run in this election.

But he’s still the country’s most popular politician, he maintains the charges against him are political, and his party has still been campaigning for seats. A big showing on election day could’ve been a rebuke to Pakistan’s ruling class, but that’s unlikely now that a government crackdown has side-lined his party.

And fourth, there’s the person this all helps: Nawaz Sharif. He’s a three-time former prime minister who returned to Pakistan from exile late last year, just as courts suddenly started removing various legal hurdles to his political comeback (including convictions on corruption charges he denies).  

Does this all feel like someone might be pulling the strings here? 

It’s a question that can give off conspiracy-theorist vibes, but not when you’re talking about Pakistan: its military ruled the country for decades, then faded into the shadows without relinquishing control. It sees itself as a national guardian against chaos and weakness, a premise it’s long used to justify its meddling.

So that’s why, despite Pakistan’s former army chief declaring “the military has decided they will not interfere in any political matter”, we’re still feeling pretty confident about the result of next week’s elections.

Imran Khan lost power after a high-profile confrontation with the military. So now it’s Nawaz Sharif back in the military’s favour, and that’ll put him back in power.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

Let’s reflect briefly on the three protagonists here.

First, Imran Khan. Intriguers who grew up watching cricket will have a sense of just how big a deal this all is for Pakistanis and beyond. He was a gifted cricketer who just got better and better, culminating in a big World Cup win. And his celebrity UK marriage (then split) made him a tabloid hit.

Second, Pakistan’s military. It long backed the Taliban and meddled in Afghan politics next door, but the result has arguably been more chaos for Pakistan, not less. The same might now be said for its meddling back home.

And third, Pakistan’s next prime minister (again): Nawaz Sharif. His last three terms all ended early after showdowns with the military. So why’s he now back in favour with the generals? It’s because they prefer him to the volatile populism of Imran Khan.

Also worth noting: 

  • No Pakistani prime minister has ever served their full five-year term.
  • The upcoming elections were originally scheduled to take place last November, but were controversially postponed to redraw constituencies.
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