The former Pakistan prime minister was arrested over the weekend on corruption charges—and sent to a high security prison. There have been very few protests by his party workers—and a number of leaders have quit. Is this the end of the road for Khan?
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Remind me what’s up with Imran Khan…
Kicking out Khan: Back in March 2022, the opposition parties ganged up and passed a no-confidence motion—that threw Khan out of office. The justification offered by the Opposition—economic mismanagement—had little to do with the ignominious end of his tenure. The real reason: The Pakistan military wanted to get rid of their former protege—who tried to assert his power to appoint the next Army chief of staff. And he got too cosy with the Chinese—which pissed off the Americans. The Pakistani military has no desire to put all its eggs in the Beijing-Moscow basket.
The new government: installed after Khan’s ouster is led by Shehbaz Sharif—former PM Nawaz Sharif’s brother—and in coalition with Bilawal Bhutto—son of Benazir Bhutto. This caretaker government is supposed to serve out the rest of Khan's term—until October 2023—when fresh elections will be held.
Khan’s soaring popularity: Turns out being kicked out of office was the best thing that happened to him. Khan held massive rallies pushing for snap elections—and he was more popular than ever. The growing economic crisis—made worse by devastating floods—helped him stage a “stunning comeback.” His public cred soared even higher after a failed attempt on his life in November—turning Khan into a martyr.
Arrest #1: The government has done its best to neutralise Khan—by slapping at least 120 cases on him. The charges range from corruption to terrorism. In May, he was arrested on corruption charges. He was accused of profiting from a quid pro quo arrangement with a real estate tycoon Malik Riaz—during his tenure as PM. Khan protected Riaz from money laundering charges in exchange for “Rs 5 billion and hundreds of kanals (of land).” The result: $239 million loss to the national exchequer.
The great uprising: Khan’s arrest sparked unprecedented protests—as party workers vented their rage on military targets—including the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. But the establishment took a surprisingly low-key approach to the violence. One reason: generals did not impose martial law because the country desperately needed its IMF bailout package to survive. The $3 billion aid package was finally approved in July.
The release: Khan was released on bail soon after—and the Supreme Court declared his arrest illegal. He continued to make explosive allegations—accusing the military establishment of conspiring against him. And for a moment, Khan looked invincible… just for a moment.
Ok, why was he arrested again?
Arrest #2: On Saturday, Khan was arrested after a trial court in Islamabad found him guilty of the “offence of corrupt practices.” He has been sentenced to three years in jail—and fined Rs 100,000 (Pakistani).
The Toshakhana case: All gifts given to public officials are recorded and stored in the Toshakhana. Khan is accused of illegally selling a number of items received by him as PM—between 2018 and 2022. The gifts allegedly include seven watches—of which six of them are Rolexes. The most expensive: a special Holy Kaaba edition Graff watch gifted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia—valued at $300,000.
Khan’s defence: He paid for at least four of these items—including the Graff watch—and then sold them as a lawful owner. But the Election Commission was not impressed by Khan’s defence. While the sale may not have been illegal, the commission said he engaged in “unethical behaviour”—and made false assertions. In November last year, the EC approached the Islamabad court requesting it to initiate criminal proceedings.
Point to note: A number of prominent Pakistani journalists believe that Khan is indeed guilty—even if he is being imprisoned for the wrong reasons by the current government.
The immediate fallout: Khan is banned from contesting elections for the next five years—and he will not be able to remain the chairman of his party. In other words, his political capital has been wiped out.
Why can’t he stage a comeback like last time?
There are a number of reasons why Khan no longer possesses a ‘get out of jail’ card.
A targeted campaign: Although Khan regained his freedom in May, the military/government undertook a systematic campaign to hollow out his support:
- News columnists sympathetic to his cause were accused of treason. A prominent YouTube commentator went missing in May—and has not yet been found.
- The government also made an example of 30-odd protesters—by trying them in military court.
- Key leaders of his party PTI were either arrested—or threatened with criminal charges. As were their family members.
- Some went into hiding but many just fled the party. In the first weeks of June, more than 100 senior and mid-level party officials—including two former chief ministers, a former governor and several former cabinet ministers—quit PTI.
Irony alert: The military’s tactics have been almost identical to the strategy it used to eliminate Khan’s rivals in 2018—when he was their ‘pet’ candidate.
A new party: PTI’s plummeting fortunes became all the more apparent when a former confidant of Khan started his own party—Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party. And many top PTI leaders jumped on its bandwagon. The reason: no one wants to be left on the sidelines in the upcoming national elections. For all his personal popularity, Khan and his party have been kicked off the electoral field:
Although Mr. Khan has retained popular support among the masses, political parties in Pakistan need strong individual candidates to win seats in Parliament. The string of defections mean Mr. Khan has lost his party’s key electable candidates, analysts say, which will make it more difficult for him to parlay his street power into victories in the general elections scheduled for October.
As a result, he has gone from hero to zero in Pakistani politics.
The gloves are off: Last time he was arrested, Khan was taken to a nice guesthouse on a police compound in Islamabad—and freely met with party colleagues. This time he has been taken to a high-security prison:
Attock, in eastern Punjab province, is notorious for its harsh conditions and its inmates include convicted militants… 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.
Even Khan’s legal team has not been allowed to see him.
A timid response: This time around, there have been no angry protests—even though Khan called on his supporters to rise up before his arrest. Most people have stayed off the streets—and those who dared to rally have already been whisked off to jail. People are far too afraid even to post in support of Khan on social media. According to one Pakistan observer:
I think the response from the draconian crackdown has scared Khan supporters into submission. I really think that the support base was unwilling to put itself at risk in the way we saw on May 9. From one sense, the military has played this just right. They used these brutal tactics that really preempted a larger and more robust reaction from Khan's support base.
The bottomline: Khan’s charmed political career has come to an end—at least for now. He gained power thanks to the military—and lost all of it for the same reason. No one knows if Khan can make it on his own. As one Pakistani analyst says:
It all depends on his courage and patience. 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.
New York Times and The Hindu have the most details on the latest arrest. Indian Express and Al Jazeera lay out the Toshkhana case. BBC News reports on why Khan’s political career is in jeopardy. Associated Press has more on the harsher terms of Khan’s arrest—and the new party created by his former confidant. We’ve covered Imran Khan’s fortunes in multiple Big Stories. This Big Story has everything you need to know about Shehbaz Sharif—the current prime minister in favour with the military. And this one has lots of background on his relationship with the military—which has been both mentor and nemesis.