No surprises

Published August 6, 2023

PAKISTAN’S twisted political saga continues without the slightest deviation from a tired and predictable script. PTI chairman Imran Khan has been found guilty of “corrupt practices”, disqualified from representing the people of Pakistan, fined Rs100,000, and sentenced to three years in jail for good measure.

If Mr Khan’s actual ‘crime’ seems irrelevant and of little moral significance, it is because former prime ministers Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy faced similar treatment at the hands of the state; none of the charges levelled against them withstood the test of time.

Indeed, considering the frivolity of the charge and severity of Mr Khan’s punishment, one need not reach too far back in history to find a parallel. Where Mr Sharif’s political dreams were cut short over an unreceived salary, Mr Khan’s political career has been rudely interrupted over failing to properly declare certain gifts he received as prime minister. In neither case, can the severity of the punishment be said to have fitted the ‘crime’.

There is no denying that Mr Khan blundered by not complying with the ECP’s asset declaration rules as strictly as he should have. However, months of reporting on Toshakhana records have since established that very few of those who received gifts in an official capacity may be able to pass similar scrutiny if their records were to be examined with the same vigour.

Given that context, for the court to hand Mr Khan the maximum possible sentence for the offence he was charged with seems excessive. The punishment is all the more problematic after the concerns raised by several observers over the manner in which the trial was conducted and the seeming haste with which the judgement was issued. Of course, Mr Khan is entitled to appeal the sentence, and he may earn a reprieve, but the intended damage may have been done by then.

It must be asked why our state periodically subjects popular leaders to such humiliation when it routinely ignores far more serious crimes. This is, after all, the same country where a clear constitutional edict to hold elections within a specified time frame was wilfully cast aside earlier this year, and there still haven’t been any consequences for the actors involved in the farce.

The fact is that Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto were not, and Imran Khan will not be rendered irrelevant to Pakistanis over some technical knockout. The fate of a politician rests in the hands of their constituency, and no amount of external interference can change this simple relationship. The experiment was tried in the earlier two cases and failed, and the state seems to be repeating the same mistake, only to weaken a fraying social contract further.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2023

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