LAHORE, Pakistan, (Reuters) – Police arrested Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan in Lahore on Saturday after a court sentenced him to three years in prison for illegally selling state gifts, potentially barring the opposition leader from contesting an upcoming election.
Legal experts say the guilty verdict reached by an Islamabad district court could eliminate Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s greatest rival in a national election expected in November.
“Police have arrested Imran Khan from his residence,” Khan’s lawyer, Intezar Panjotha, told Reuters. “We are filing a petition against the decision in high court.”
His party called for peaceful protests against the decision, but there was only a limited public response on Saturday evening.
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 splintered.
Lahore Police Chief Bilal Siddique Kamiana confirmed the arrest and told Reuters Khan was being transferred to the capital, Islamabad. He would then be held at Central Adiala Jail in nearby Rawalpindi, according to the arrest warrant.
Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), said it had filed another appeal to the Supreme Court earlier on Saturday.
Khan, 70, is a former cricket star who went on to forge a political career, serving as prime minister from 2018 to 2022. He has denied wrongdoing and in a pre-recorded video address released by his party he asked supporters to protest peacefully.
“By the time you hear this statement, they will have arrested me. I have only one appeal: don’t sit silently at home. I am struggling for you and the country and your children’s future,” he said.
His conviction came a day after Pakistan’s high court temporarily halted the district court trial. It was not immediately clear why the trial had proceeded despite the high court decision.
Khan’s deputy and former foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who PTI said would lead the party in Khan’s absence, said their leader had been denied a fair trial.
“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,” he said in a video address.
The party’s top decision-making body met Saturday and called for nation-wide peaceful protests, according to a statement.
Reaction was muted, compared to the violence that roiled the country when Khan was briefly arrested in May.
Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said Khan’s arrest had followed a full investigation and proper legal proceedings in a trial court. She said his arrest was unrelated to the upcoming elections.
A copy of the court verdict, shared by Khan’s legal team, said he had made false statements about acquiring official state gifts.
“He has been found guilty of corrupt practices by hiding the benefits he accrued from national exchequer wilfully and intentionally,” the verdict said.
“He cheated while providing information about gifts he obtained from Toshakhana (the state gift repository) which later proved to be false and inaccurate.”
LEAD UP TO ELECTION
Police surrounded Khan’s residence in Lahore after the verdict was released, Pakistani media and a Reuters witness reported, but there were no signs of unrest.
His arrest and detention for several days in May in a separate case sparked political turmoil and deadly clashes between his supporters and police.
In the aftermath, thousands of Khan’s aides and supporters have been arrested, according to the interior minister. Many pro-Khan parliamentarians were also arrested and distanced themselves from Khan, with some resigning from politics.
Prime Minister Sharif has proposed that parliament be dissolved on Aug. 9, three days before the end of its term, according to political sources, normally paving the way for a general election by November.
However, Pakistan’s law minister on Saturday said it would take four months to complete the process of a census and new constituency boundaries, which could signal further delay of the election.
Khan was convicted by the court in a case that was first investigated by the election commission, which found him guilty of unlawfully selling state gifts while prime minister.
He was accused of misusing his premiership to buy and sell gifts in state possession that were received during visits abroad and worth more than 140 million Pakistani rupees ($635,000).
Khan has been charged in a string of cases since being ousted from the premiership in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April 2022.
Once criticised for being under the thumb of powerful generals, Khan’s ouster that year came amid worsening relations between him and then army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Khan has said the army, under General Asim Munir, is still targeting him and his party in a bid to keep him out of the elections and prevent him from returning to power. The army denies this.