By Mubasher Bukhari, Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam and Charlotte Greenfield
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 that is expected to be held 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.”
Lahore Police Chief Bilal Siddique Kamiana confirmed the arrest and told Reuters the politician was being transferred to the capital, Islamabad. He would then be held at Central Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, near the capital, according to the arrest warrant.
Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), said in a statement it had already 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 and who was prime minister from 2018 to 2022. He has denied any wrongdoing and in a pre-recorded video address released by his party he asked his supporters to peacefully protest.
“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.
The conviction came just 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.
Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said in a broadcast statement that Khan’s arrest 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 the former premier had made false statements in relation to 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 (state gift repository) which later proved to be false and inaccurate.”
LEAD UP TO ELECTION
Police surrounded Khan’s residence in Lahore on Saturday after the verdict was released, Pakistani media and a Reuters witness reported, but there were no immediate signs of unrest in the hours after his arrest, unlike last May.
Back then, his arrest and detention for several days over a separate case sparked political turmoil and deadly clashes between his supporters and police.
Prime Minister Sharif has proposed that parliament be dissolved on Aug. 9, three days before the end of its term, according to political sources, paving the way for a general election by November.
A PTI official said vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister, would lead the party during Khan’s absence.
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 during his tenure as 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 no confidence vote in Pakistan’s parliament 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.
He has said the army, under current chief General Asim Munir, is continuing to target 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.