ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan failed to appear before a court in Islamabad on Tuesday to answer charges in a graft case against him. The no-show was apparently a legal maneuver by the ex-premier to avoid arrest.
The hearing was set by Judge Zafar Iqbal and Khan was required to appear in person to respond to charges of selling state gifts while in office. The same judge last week issued an arrest warrant for Khan but only the government of Khan’s successor, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, can order the police to take him into custody.
However, Khan’s legal team petitioned a top court on Tuesday, requesting the suspension of the arrest warrant for him and seeking more time to appear before judge Iqbal for a pre-trial hearing.
After hearing arguments from Khan’s lawyer and the prosecution, the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court, Aamer Farooq, suspended the arrest warrant and ordered Khan to appear before Iqbal on March 13. It was unclear whether Khan will comply with the latest court order.
The 70-year-old former cricket star and now opposition leader is embroiled in a string of court cases against him, including terrorism charges raised by police. He has so far avoided arrest and claims the legal imbroglio has been orchestrated by the government in an attempt to discredit him.
Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament last April but has claimed, without providing evidence, that his removal was illegal and a conspiracy by Sharif and Washington. Both the United States and Pakistan’s government have denied those allegations.
The charges in Tuesday’s case accuse Khan of unlawfully selling state gifts he had received as premier and concealing the earnings from those sales from the country’s election tribunal. In October, the tribunal disqualified him from holding public office for five years. Khan automatically lost his seat in Parliament because of the disqualification, which he has since challenged in court.
Mohsin Ranjha, a lawyer from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party, criticized Khan for not appearing in court and said the former premier is mocking the legal system.
“Imran Khan only appears before the courts when he wants to,” said Ranja.
Fawad Chaudhry, a close aide of Khan and a senior leader in his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, claimed Khan could not travel to Islamabad for health reasons. He also said Khan had been threatened with violence. However, Khan was expected to lead an election rally in Lahore on Wednesday, despite threats to his life.
Khan has been living in the eastern city of Lahore since November, when he was shot in the leg by a gunman during a protest rally. Since then, he has only once traveled to Islamabad – last week – for court appearances in other cases against him.
His party has threatened nationwide protests if Khan is arrested while the former prime minister claims there are serious threats on his life. Since his ouster, he has been campaigning for early elections – another demand that Sharif dismisses, saying the vote would be held as scheduled later this year.
Pakistan’s election tribunal on Tuesday issued arrest warrants for Khan, and Chaudhry, who is a top leader from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, on charges of making insulting speeches against Sikandar Sultan Raja, who is the head of the elections overseeing body. The tribunal has asked police to produce Khan and Chaudhry before it on March 14.