A High Court in Pakistan overturned jailed former prime minister Imran Khan’s conviction on charges of leaking state secrets, his lawyer and his party said on Monday, but Khan will remain in prison for now due to a conviction in another case.
Khan, 71, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison by a lower court on charges of making public a classified cable sent to Islamabad by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington in 2022. He has been in jail since August last year.
He had challenged the conviction in Islamabad High Court, which said in an order on Monday that, an “instant appeal is allowed”, adding Imran Khan was acquitted of the charges.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Khan’s foreign minister during his tenure from 2018-2022, was also acquitted of the charges, in what is a major victory for the jailed leader.
“Thank God, the sentence is overturned,” a spokesman for legal affairs from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, Naeem Panjutha, said in a post on the X social media platform shortly after the Islamabad High Court announced its decision.
Khan has said the classified cable was proof of a conspiracy by the Pakistan military and US government to topple his government in 2022 after he visited Moscow. Washington and Pakistan’s military deny that accusation.
The cipher case was one of four in which Khan was summarily convicted one after the other in less than a week just ahead of Pakistan’s national election in February. In two other of those cases the sentences have since been suspended while he appeals.
But despite Monday’s acquittal, Khan, a former cricket legend, will remain in prison serving a seven-year sentence over another case relating to his marriage to Bushra Khan which the court ruled “contravened Islamic traditions”.
A ruling on the couple’s appeal against the sentence was postponed last week and the proceedings transferred to another court after a judge recused himself following an accusation of bias made by her former husband, according to Khan’s lawyers.
“We will celebrate this victory,” another one of his lawyers, Ali Zafar, said in a TV interview, adding that the other cases faced by Khan would result in acquittals too.
“It’s a huge political and legal victory,” journalist and political analyst Mazhar Abbas told Reuters, but cautioned that it would be premature to say that Khan would be released anytime soon.
Khan is also named as an accused in several other cases, including charges of “inciting violence against the state”.
The government, which says Khan broke clauses of the state secrets law by revealing contents of a secret diplomatic cable, said prosecutors were awaiting the detailed decision before deciding if they would appeal against the acquittal in the Supreme Court.
“It is a fact that a national security document was used for political purposes,” government spokesman for legal issues Aqeel Malik said in a press conference after the decision, adding that the government would not compromise on national security.
“This is the first big case which was part of the political victimisation against Imran Khan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi which has been dashed to the ground,” Salman Safdar, a lawyer for Khan’s party, told AFP outside the court.
Analysts regard Pakistan as a “hybrid regime”, where the military establishment wields immense power to determine the course of ostensibly democratic politics. Khan’s provocative first arrest in May last year sparked nationwide protests by supporters who directed unprecedented anger at the military — which responded with a sweeping crackdown on PTI and its supporters.
Despite being severely hobbled during the election campaign, candidates loyal to PTI secured more seats than any other party in the February elections — which were marred by allegations of vote tampering.
A broad coalition of parties considered more pliable to the influence of the military kept the MPs from power. “In the court of the public he was already very popular and now it seems that in at least one institution, at the senior judiciary level, there is a realisation that they cannot be part of the undemocratic method of removing Imran Khan,” political analyst and pollster Bilal Gilani told AFP.
Despite Khan’s recent success in the courts, however, his political role hinges on his relationship with the military, Gilani added. “If he continues his pace of current confrontation with the military, the chance of a comeback are limited.”
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