The legal team for the former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, appealed his three-year prison sentence on Wednesday, kicking off a high-stakes and hotly contested legal fight that will determine Mr. Khan’s future and the country’s political climate as it heads into general elections later this year.
Mr. Khan was arrested and jailed on Saturday after being found guilty in a corruption case, the latest twist in a stunning downfall for the leader, who has been in a political showdown with the country’s powerful military since his ouster last year.
His allies argue that the court verdict, which found him guilty of hiding assets after illegally selling state gifts, was little more than a politically motivated effort to sideline him. And for many Pakistanis, the spectacle of Mr. Khan’s imprisonment offered a striking reminder that the country’s military remains the ultimate and unmoving force behind Pakistan’s politics.
In the Islamabad High Court on Wednesday, his legal team argued that the conviction represented a violation of Mr. Khan’s “fundamental right to due process and fair trial” and said it was decided by a biased judge determined to convict him “irrespective of the merits of the case,” according to court documents.
His lawyers also sought to have him moved from a famously harsh prison to one more suited to political prisoners, and are challenging an announcement by the country’s election commission on Tuesday that Mr. Khan was barred from running for office for five years.
Under Pakistani law, a convicted person is barred from running for public office for a maximum of five years starting from the conviction date.
Mr. Khan is the third former prime minister of Pakistan to be imprisoned in recent years. In 2018, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested and jailed over corruption charges, and a year later — during Mr. Khan’s rule — another former leader, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was imprisoned as part of an anticorruption campaign.
All three claimed they were targets of political vendettas — an allegation that resonates in a country where the military has ruled directly for nearly half of its history.
Mr. Khan’s political downfall has been particularly fraught — even by the standards of Pakistan’s turbulent politics.
An international cricket star turned populist politician, Mr. Khan rose from the outskirts of politics to the country’s highest office in 2018 with the helping hand of the military establishment.
After he fell out with the country’s military leaders last year and was removed from office in a vote of no-confidence, he defied the typical political script for an ousted leader and made a stunning comeback. For months, he drew thousands of supporters to rallies where, in charismatic speeches, he tapped into Pakistanis’ widespread frustration with the country’s political system.
To many, he seemed to harness the kind of populist clout that once belonged only to Pakistani religious leaders, and he soon became one of the few politicians to wield significant political power without the support of the military.
The country’s generals took note — and responded in force. In recent months, the military has targeted him and his party in an intimidation campaign that has effectively hollowed out his support base in the lead-up to the next general elections expected this fall.
In the Islamabad High Court on Wednesday, Mr. Khan’s lawyers described his first nights in the prison where he is being held, Attock, as a battle against insects, especially mosquitoes. Attock prison, whose occupants include convicted militants, is notoriously harsh.
The lawyers asked that Mr. Khan be moved to Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, which offers comparatively better facilities.
His lawyers also moved for the high court to immediately suspend Mr. Khan’s conviction in the state’s gift case, describing the decision as being “against the law” in court documents.
The court adjourned the hearing on his prison conditions until Friday, and it turned down his lawyers’ request to immediately suspend the conviction until the state can offer a rebuttal to the case in a hearing next week.
Paving the way for the country’s next general elections, on Wednesday evening the current prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, is expected to send the country’s president a formal notice to dissolve the Parliament — a move that is required in Pakistan before general elections can be held. The ruling coalition is expected to set up an interim government in the coming days that will oversee the election, which is expected to take place this fall.
Salman Masood contributed reporting.