By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was barred from holding public office on Friday after the top election tribunal found him guilty of unlawfully selling gifts from foreign dignitaries and heads of state, a lawyer and a minister said.
The ruling adds to the political and economic uncertainty plaguing Pakistan since earlier this year when Khan was ousted from power, and supporters took to the streets in different cities in protest, blocking roads and highways and setting tyres on fire.
The 70-year-old cricketer-turned-politician was accused of misusing his 2018 to 2022 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).
The gifts included watches given by a royal family, according to government officials, who have alleged previously that Khan’s aides sold them in Dubai.
According to a list shared by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, the gifts include seven wrist watches, six made by watchmaker Rolex, and the most expensive a “Master Graff limited edition” valued at 85 million Pakistani rupees ($385,000).
The list, which Reuters could not independently verify, also contained perfumes, diamond jewellery and dinner sets.
Khan in a statement later on Friday denied any wrongdoing and termed the decision “biased”, adding he had legally purchased the items. He called on supporters to stop protests, saying he would challenge the ruling in court and it would likely be overturned.
The tribunal, the Election Commission of Pakistan, is yet to officially release a ruling providing details such as how long the former premier would be barred from public office. Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar told a conference on Friday that Khan would be disqualified for five years.
Since being removed from office, Khan has held protest gatherings across the country calling for snap elections, but the government has said they will be held as scheduled in October or November next year.
The political instability has also fuelled economic uncertainty, with international ratings agencies questioning if the current government can maintain difficult economic policies in the face of political pressure and looming polls.
Under Pakistani law, a legislator found guilty of corruption or misuse of public office can be barred for up to five years.
Faisal Chaudhry, a lawyer in Khan’s team, told Reuters the tribunal had no jurisdiction in the matter and that a challenge would be filed.
“It’s an illegal and unconstitutional order,” he said.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif welcomed the ruling, however, writing on Twitter that the prime minister’s post was made into a source of personal income through “corrupt practices”.
“The idol of ‘honesty and trustworthiness’ was shattered,” Sharif said.
Michael Kugelman, the director of South Asia Institute at The Wilson Centre said, “No matter how you slice it, and no matter how it plays out, the ruling worsens an all-encompassing political crisis that will make it all the more difficult to address Pakistan’s perfect storm of other crises – economic stress, resurgent terrorism, and floods.”
Khan supporters protested in different cities, officials said.
In the northwestern city of Peshawar, where Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party runs the provincial government, groups of supporters, dozens each in size, blocked a number of key roads including the highway connecting the city to the capital Islamabad, to the dismay of drivers.
“I am going to our village for the weekend with my family and was waiting in the car for more than two hours as the roads are blocked by the PTI workers,” said Hameed Khan in Peshawar.
“We didn’t disqualify their leader, then why do they punish us?”
A few dozen protesters tried to block one key artery into Islamabad and were pushed back with teargas, said police official Sohail Khan. He said that the protesters attacked the police with bricks, injuring three officials, and had tried unsuccessfully to block others roads in the capital as well.
Dozens of Imran Khan’s supporters also blocked roads in the eastern city of Lahore, setting fire to tyres.
Khan opponent Maryam Nawaz, from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), told reporters in London in recorded comments telecast by local Geo News TV: “It is proved now that he is a certified thief.”
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar; Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore and Gibran Peshimam in Islamabad; Writing by Shivam Patel in New Delhi; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Hugh Lawson and Josie Kao)