ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan awoke Sunday as an inmate in a high-security prison after a court handed him a three-year sentence for corruption, a development that could end his future in politics.
The court ruled Saturday that national cricketing hero Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022 but remains the country’s leading opposition figure, had concealed assets after selling state gifts.
The prison sentence could bar him from politics under a law that prohibits anyone with a criminal conviction from holding or running for public office. He could also lose the chairmanship of the party he founded, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI.
Khan was arrested Saturday at his home in the eastern city of Lahore and taken to prison.
Government figures on Saturday welcomed Khan’s arrest and conviction, with the Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari describing it as “comeuppance” for the opposition leader.
Critics say efforts to put him behind bars are politically motivated and have intensified ahead of elections due to be held later this year.
They argue that Khan’s popularity and a large support base, combined with his ability to mobilize massive crowds, pose a threat to the ruling coalition and its backers in Pakistan’s powerful military that has been the final arbiter of the country’s politics since independence from Britain in 1947.
It’s the second time this year that Khan has been detained, joining other former Pakistani prime ministers who had been arrested and seen military interventions throughout the country’s political history.
But his current stay at the Attock prison is a far cry from his custodial conditions in May, when he was taken to a well-appointed guesthouse on a police compound in Islamabad under a Supreme Court order. He was then allowed visitors and meetings with party colleagues.
Attock, in eastern Punjab province, is notorious for its harsh conditions and its inmates include convicted militants. Khan’s jail term started Saturday, but it was not immediately clear if he will spend the three-year sentence in Attock.
Authorities have further tightened security around the prison, which already has armed guards in watchtowers, by erecting barriers and blocking roads to keep people away. They have also instructed locals not to allow media onto their roofs to stop photographs and videos from leaking.
PTI lawyer Shoaib Shaheen told The Associated Press that police at the prison refused entry to a legal team who went to see Khan. He said the party would file an appeal as there were “plenty of loopholes in the verdict.”
In May, Khan’s arrest on corruption charges caused a wave of violent protests that swept the country. Days later, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered his release, saying his arrest was illegal.
Khan’s calls for mass protests have so far failed to gain traction among his supporters with police making far fewer arrests than they did in May as people mostly stayed off the streets.
On Sunday, hundreds of people gathered on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, to condemn the arrest.
One supporter, Sumera Jarar, accused the government of violating human rights. She said PTI supporters would move forward with Khan and Pakistan “step by step”.
Local party official Mir Atique said: “Imran cannot be removed from people’s hearts, even if you disqualify Khan from the ballots or remove or expel all signs of Imran Khan.”
But some of Khan’s closest colleagues defected from his party after the May violence as authorities cracked down on the PTI, leaving him increasingly isolated.
Karachi-based analyst Tauseef Ahmed Khan, who is unrelated to the former premier, said the situation is difficult for Khan, but it doesn’t necessarily herald the end of his political career.
“It all depends on his courage and patience,” said Khan the analyst. “If he lacks both, it is simple and the end of the game for him. But otherwise he can come out as a great leader if he can bear the hardship of prison for a few years.”
Associated Press writer Anum Naveed reported from Attock, Pakistan.