What next after Pakistan court declares Imran Khan’s trial in jail illegal?

While the Supreme Court has accepted Khan’s bail application, it is uncertain whether the former PM will walk out of jail.

Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan
Imran Khan claimed a confidential 'cypher' indicated his removal was US-backed [File: Arif Ali/AFP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – A Pakistani court’s ruling declaring the trial of former Prime Minister Imran Khan inside a jail as illegal is being seen as a shot in the arm for the country’s main opposition leader.

Khan, 71, has been languishing in jail since August 5 following his three-year conviction for unlawfully selling state gifts.

Though a court granted him bail three weeks later, he remains locked up in connection with other cases. One of those cases related to Khan allegedly leaking state secrets, or the “cypher” case.

But the Islamabad High Court on Tuesday said the requirements to hold the cypher trial, being held in jail for security reasons, were not being met, and hence declared null and void.

“In exceptional circumstances and where it is conducive to justice, a trial can be conducted in jail in a manner that fulfils the requirements of an open trial or a trial in camera provided it is in accordance with the procedure provided by law,” said the court.

On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court accepted a bail application from Khan but did not fix a date for a hearing.

“A decision will come in the next hearing after arguments from both sides,” Khan’s lawyer Naeem Panjutha posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Here is what you need to know about the case and what happens next:

What is Imran Khan’s trial about?

Khan, a former cricketing legend-turned-politician who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, was the prime minister from 2018 to 2022 before he was removed through a no-confidence vote in parliament.

After his removal, he was charged with making public the contents of a confidential cable sent by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States for political gains.

But Khan alleges the diplomatic cable proves there was a conspiracy, allegedly hatched by the US in connivance with Pakistan’s military and political establishment, to remove him from power.

The US and Pakistani authorities have repeatedly denied the charges.

Khan claims the cypher case, and dozens of other charges, are a ploy by his enemies, including the powerful military, to keep him out of politics.

What has happened so far?

Khan was arrested from his Lahore residence in August in the state gifts case and sentenced to three years in prison. On August 29, the Islamabad High Court suspended the sentence and ordered his release.

However, immediately after the court order, a trial court directed the authorities to rearrest Khan, this time in the cypher case, and begin the trial in jail.

Last month, the prosecution indicted Khan after holding multiple hearings and recording witness testimonies.

Khan’s lawyers have rejected the charges and even raised concerns over his safety in jail. At least two assassination attempts have been made on him since he lost power in April 2022.

What happens next?

According to Abuzar Salman Niazi, a Lahore-based legal expert, the Islamabad High Court asked the government to provide “cogent, concrete” reasons why the trial should take place in the jail.

“Once the government provides its reasonings, which should be substantial in nature, the court must allow the defendant to counter government arguments, and only then the trial court judge shall determine if the case can be held in jail or not,” Niazi told Al Jazeera.

He questioned the lack of transparency in the ongoing trial and said the court insisted the hearing must be held publicly.

“Even if the trial subsequently takes place in jail, it will be assumed as an open court, which means adequate access for lawyers and media observers to monitor the proceedings,” he said.

Basil Nabi Malik, a Karachi-based lawyer, said the court’s order does not mean Khan is going to walk out of jail anytime soon.

“In such political matters, typically, a variety of cases are lodged against an accused, inevitably resulting in such an individual remaining in jail, if not on account of one case then another. Imran Khan’s current predicament appears to be similar,” Malik told Al Jazeera.

Malik said the government may consider the possibility of challenging the Islamabad High Court’s decision before the Supreme Court.

“If the detailed reasons are issued soon, it is possible that the federation may consider alternate options as well,” he said.

Niazi believes it is unlikely that Khan will get any immediate relief from the courts and that his imprisonment will continue.

“The cypher case has been declared null and void, but till Imran Khan gets bail from the Supreme Court, it has nothing to do with his incarceration, which will continue,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera