Imran Khan’s conviction a week before election is a mirror image of the past: diplomats  ...

Imran Khan’s conviction a week before election is a mirror image of the past: diplomats  

While diplomats point to similar cases against other leaders before the previous election, control by the establishment appears tighter than the past

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s latest conviction in the ‘Cipher Case’ on Tuesday, which comes just 10 days before general elections, is a dramatic development, but one in step with past elections that have been “managed”, said diplomats who have served there, who indicated that this year’s election winners would also be “selected, rather than elected” by the military establishment. While Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leaders called the 10-year prison sentence against Mr. Khan and former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi a “sham” and vowed to appeal to higher courts, it seems clear that the verdict is a blow for the party that won elections in 2018 and still claims to be the most popular party in the fray.

“Imran Khan wasn’t given a fair trial, not given access to his counsels or media and public despite the higher courts orders, and the decision was reached in haste with no right given to defence counsels to cross-question the witnesses,” PTI Adviser on International Affairs and Media Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari said in comments to The Hindu. “These cases are politically motivated and stand no chance in higher courts so we are hopeful decision will be overturned,” he added.

Role reversal

Former Indian diplomats to Pakistan pointed out that Mr. Khan is undoubtedly a victim, but of a system that he was the beneficiary of in previous elections, when roles were reversed with PML-N Chief and 3-time PM Nawaz Sharif. In July 2018, with about two weeks to go to the elections, Mr. Sharif was convicted and handed a 10-year sentence on charges of corruption, after being disqualified from public office in the ‘Panama Papers’ corruption cases involving his property in London.

“What Imran Khan and the PTI face today is almost identical to what Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N faced then. So India should see this as one more Pakistani election and not very different from others,” said former High Commissioner to Pakistan TCA Raghavan, who was posted in Islamabad from 2013-2015. “We should wait for the dust to settle and see what comes up,” he added.

Another former diplomat also said that the conviction of Mr. Khan was not “surprising”, and as in the past, all strings were being pulled by the Pakistani military. “This election is fast turning into the mirror image of the ‘managed’ 2018 election, with Imran Khan at the receiving end of the wrath of the Army this time. The process of his conviction is as questionable as Nawaz Sharif’s conviction in 2017-18,” said Sharat Sabharwal who served as High Commissioner to Pakistan from 2009-2013. “A managed election will neither solve the ongoing political crisis nor result in a government capable of dealing effectively with Pakistan’s intractable problems,” he added.

Ties with India

When asked about the impact of the expected results of the elections next week on ties with India, Mr. Sabharwal said that there could be a “degree of thaw”, including some movement on trade. “But the Pakistani government’s ability to deliver on the bilateral relationship will remain contingent upon the will of the Army,” referring to Pakistan Army chief Gen. Asim Munir.

While many of the characteristics of previous Pakistani elections are being repeated in 2024, some developments suggest the control exercised by the establishment over elections is more extreme than in the past. In 2008 elections, held after former PM Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, Mr. Khan’s and his party boycotted elections claiming they would be “manipulated” by the U.S. and then-President General Musharraf to favour Bhutto’s PPP, but his party was allowed to contest. In 2013 and 2018, all three major national parties, the PML-N, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and PTI were in the contest, but this time the PTI has had its election symbol of the “cricket bat” blocked or delisted by the courts, and as a result PTI candidates are at a further disadvantage. 

The conviction of Mr. Khan on Tuesday includes the much more serious charges of treason and violating the Official Secrets Act than previous corruption cases. The Cipher case relates to Mr. Khan’s allegation that the U.S. had engineered his ouster as Prime Minister in 2022 when he had cited a diplomatic cipher as proof of a U.S. official’s threat. Pakistani analysts have also pointed out the difference between the U.S.’s policy towards Bangladesh elections in January, where the U.S. had imposed sanctions on Bangladeshi officials believed to be manipulating the elections process, but has not issued similar strictures in Pakistan’s case. “We want all international players and influential governments to practice what they profess and that’s standing up for basic fundamental rights and rule of law which seem to have been ignored blatantly in Pakistan,” Mr. Bukhari said, when asked about his expectations from India and the international community.

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