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Photo Source: BBC

Pakistan Reader# 718, 2 February 2024

Toshakhana case verdict: Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi sentenced for 14 years



An accountability court sentenced former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi to 14 years in jail in the Toshakhana reference.

Rohini Reenum

PR Explainer
 
What happened?
On 31 January, an accountability court sentenced former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi to 14 years in jail in the Toshakhana reference. Last month, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had filed a fresh reference in the Toshakhana case accusing them of retaining a jewellery set, received from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, “against undervalued assessment.” In its verdict, the court barred Imran Khan from holding public office for 10 years and imposed a fine of PKR 787 million on each of them. This marks Imran’s third conviction, following one in the cipher case a day earlier. Previously, on 5 August 2023, Imran Khan had been convicted in a separate Toshakhana case and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. Later, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) had suspended his sentence but a division bench had subsequently rejected Imran’s petition seeking the suspension of the conviction. The ruling comes just eight days before the 8 February general elections, in the run up to which Imran’s party PTI has been facing multiple challenges amid state crackdown and is contesting without an election symbol.

How did the PTI respond?
The PTI put out a statement on X which termed the verdict as “Complete destruction of every existing law in Pakistan in two days.” The statement condemned the trial as “yet another kangaroo trial in which no right to defence was given to both” and made a reference to the Cipher judgement stating that “Like cipher, this case has no basis to stand in any Higher court.” Criticizing the judiciary, the PTI stated in another post on X that “Big question marks arise on our judicial system now. How the cipher and Toshakhana cases were conducted exposed a complete disregard of law by trial court.” Refering to the judgement, PTI chairman Barrister Gohar Ali Khan stated that the conviction was “not only injustice but cruelty”. Speaking to Geo News, Gohar Ali Khan raised questions about the trial itself stating that “We were not given time, were not given permission for cross-examination, despite there being a lawyer present.” He further argued that Imran’s wife Bushra Bibi had no connection to the case and that her involvement was deliberately orchestrated in order to pressurize Khan.
 
How did other political parties and leaders respond?
According to Dawn, the PML-N’s official X account referred to Imran Khan as “fake sadiq and ameen” and stated that he has been proven to be a “certified Toshakhana thief in front of the world today.” Addressing a press conference in Lahore, PML-N leader Attaullah Tarar accused Imran Khan of having a team that used to sell retained Toshakhana items on the black market on his behalf. He also alleged that the PTI founder used local markets to undervalue Toshakhana gifts and then paid the required amount of tax on the same. On the contrary, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari disapproved of the “celebrations” over Imran Khan’s jail sentence. However, he also reiterated that Imran Khan’s politics was based on “hate and division.”

Other responses
An article in Dawn collated the responses from legal experts and journalists and stated that though both have “criticised how the trial was carried out,” the verdict itself was “expected.” Lawyer Basil Nabi Malik stated that the back-to-back nature of the two verdicts gave an impression of “an impending deadline being met.” He further argued that this might “rather than hurting Imran Khan, this may well politically strengthen him for the upcoming elections.” Journalist Shahzeb Jillani stated that the “brazen” political victimization of Imran Khan over the course of the year is “turning him into a mythical character in the public imagination as sympathy for him grows.” Lawyer Rida Hosain stated that the verdict had undermined “people’s faith in the justice system” as due process and fair trial had been denied to the accused- as they were denied the right to being represented by a counsel of their choice in the Cipher case and the denial of right to cross-examination in the Toshakhana case. An editorial in The Express Tribune also argeed that the accused were “denied due process of law”- a formal statement of Imran Khan was not recorded and “both accused were sentenced in absentia.”  Even though Imran Khan was present, the verdict was announced while he was leaving in protest. The editorial further argues that the “speech of trial” has become a “riddle” and two consecutive convictions in two days are “widely being interpreted as abject political victimisation.” Some legal experts have also raised questions regarding the conviction of Bushra Bibi. Barrister Ali Tahir stated in this regard that “There is no sense in convicting Bushra Bibi, who was only the first lady” and has argued that only the detailed judgement can render her conviction clear. However, according to The News International, media reports filed at the time had stated that the Toshakhana reference alleged that Bushra Bibi “in connivance with Imran Khan, violated clause-1 of the procedure by not depositing [a] gift at Toshakhana prior to its retention.”
 
What does this mean?
Imran Khan and PTI have consistently been complaining that their party does not have a level playing field in the forthcoming elections. This verdict taken along with the cipher verdict and the judgement stripping PTI of its election symbol “bat” gives credence to the PTI and Khan’s accusations. Irrespective of the merits of these cases, the suspect timing of the verdicts, the haste in conducting the trials and agreement of legal experts on the sidelining of the due process of law does not bode well for the public trust in judiciary- both in the short and long term. The verdicts might well have decided the fate of Imran Khan and his party in the forthcoming elections, but the fate of judicial independence and free and fair elections have also seem to have been sacrificed at the altar of vested interests. This does not bode well for any democracy, especially a democracy that is at the cusp of deciding its fate for the next five years and beyond.
 
References
Umer Berney, “Imran Khan, Bushra Bibi sentenced to 14 years in Toshakhana reference,” Dawn, 31 January 2024)
“Legal experts, journalists say Toshakhana verdict as per ‘expectations’, deride manner of proceedings,” Dawn, 31 January 2024
“Double down,” Dawn, 1 February 2024
“Another conviction (Edit-1),” The Express Tribune, 1 February 2024
Zebunnisa Burki, “Experts puzzle over why Bushra has been convicted,” The News International, 1 February 2024

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