ISLAMABAD — A special Pakistani court Wednesday indicted former Prime Minister Imran Khan on unprecedented and disputed charges of disclosing classified information involving the United States while in office.
The indictment has dealt a fresh blow to the incarcerated popular leader’s chances of contesting national elections in February and returning to power.
Co-defendant Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Khan’s deputy and a former foreign minister, was also indicted for his alleged role in the case. Foreign media representatives were not allowed to cover the legal proceedings, while only a handful of local journalists were given access as usual.
“The charges were read out loudly in the courtroom,” government prosecutor Shah Khawar told Reuters, saying Khan and Qureshi both pleaded not guilty.
Khan’s lawyer, barrister Gohar Khan, disputed the indictment. He told reporters after the hearing that “no charge was framed before us nor signed by the accused.” The trial was being conducted “hastily without ensuring transparency and fairness,” the lawyer alleged.
“Again, justice is being rushed, and whenever it is rushed, it is always crushed,” he added. The defense attorney lamented the trial could not be conducted openly and said most foreign and local media reporters were barred from covering the proceedings in violation of a judicial order.
“The criminal justice system of Pakistan is being used as a tool for political victimization. We have had enough of it. This must stop,” he said.
The court initially indicted Khan and Qureshi in October on the same charges in closed-door proceedings, but a higher court scrapped the process and ordered authorities to ensure an open trial and allow family members and journalists to attend it.
The judicial proceedings are underway inside a prison facility near the capital, Islamabad, for security reasons, the government says.
Legal experts say that a guilty verdict could result in a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment or a death sentence.
The lawsuit stems from a classified cable, internally known as a cipher, sent to Islamabad by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington in March 2022.
Khan alleged the cipher documented the United States’ role in the toppling of his government a month later with the help of his country’s powerful military to punish him for visiting Moscow a day before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Both Washington and the Pakistan military deny the charges.
On Monday, the State Department spokesman again refuted allegations the U.S. had anything to do with Pakistan’s internal affairs.
“The United States does not play any role in choosing the leaders of Pakistan. We engage with the leadership shown by — or the leadership decided by the Pakistani people — and we will continue to engage with the government of Pakistan on all these issues,” Matthew Miller told a news conference in Washington.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party won the last general elections in 2018, making him the prime minister for the first time.
The charismatic cricketer-turned-politician discussed details of the cipher at party rallies and during media interviews in the run-up to the controversial vote and continued doing so after his ouster.
Khan maintains he was doing so lawfully because he was duty-bound to inform Pakistanis about “the foreign conspiracy” against the government they had elected.
Since his removal from power, the ousted prime minister has faced dozens of lawsuits filed by authorities, which he claims to be a ploy by the military to prevent his comeback to power because of his advocacy for an independent foreign policy for Pakistan, one free from the influence of the United States.
Last August, Khan was convicted in a graft case and sentenced to three years in jail. A superior court later suspended his sentence and ordered the government to release him on bail, but authorities refused, citing the cipher and other lawsuits against him.
Unless his conviction is overturned, the former prime minister remains disqualified from running in the upcoming elections or leading the PTI under election laws.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed controversial military tribunals to resume trials of more than 100 Imran Khan supporters on charges of attacking army properties during anti-government protests last May.
The judicial order came less than two months after a five-judge panel of the top court ruled against trying civilians in military courts. Khan and his party maintain the military trials of political activists are a violation of the constitution and are meant to scare their candidates away from the upcoming polls.
The military has staged three coups against elected prime ministers since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947, and it ruled the country for more than three decades.
Pakistani politicians, including former prime ministers, say the unconstitutional military interventions have encouraged generals to influence policymaking significantly, even when not in power.