Pakistan’s authorities failed to produce Imran Khan on Tuesday for what would have been his first public appearance in months, claiming that it was too dangerous for him to attend a court-mandated public trial.
Government lawyers instead requested that the former prime minister be tried within the jail premises, a move that has been strongly resisted by Mr Khan’s opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
Mr Khan, 71, has been in jail since 5 August after he was charged for leaking state secrets.
The Islamabad High Court declared last week that a closed-door trial inside the jail premises was “illegal” and ordered it restarted as an open trial. But the government refused to bring Mr Khan to court on Tuesday, on the grounds that there were threats to his life.
The judge hearing the trial has now agreed that the proceedings may be held on the jail premises, as long as they are opened up to the media and the public.
“The public and the media should have access to the court,” the judge said.
Mr Khan’s lawyer, Naeem Panjutha, said in a post on X that “reports have been submitted citing that Imran Khan has life threats according to various intelligence and police reports”.
Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari, a close aide and adviser to Mr Khan, told The Independent that the failure to produce Mr Khan in court shows “complete lawlessness” as the court had categorically demanded that the former prime minister be produced in person.
“It is a straight-out contempt of court. It only means that there’s no rule of law left. Imagine the lawlessness that they haven’t even bothered bringing him in and they’ve ignored what the judge has said,” Mr Bukhari said.
He said that while PTI always raised fears over possible threats to Mr Khan’s life, the government was now using these concerns as a “tactic”.
“This is a tactic because they don’t want Pakistan to see his face because they know how motivating it will be to see Imran Khan walking, speaking, and talking – it will motivate people even more,” he said.
Earlier, PTI called the failure to produce Mr Khan a “clear violation” of high court orders and denial of his right to a fair trial.
“This is not only clear violation of higher court orders but also an attempt to keep the most popular leader of this country out of sight of millions and that of media, on top of denying access to a fair trial,” a PTI official said.
During the hearing, authorities in Adiala jail in Rawalpindi where Mr Khan is being held submitted an intelligence report to the judge which said Mr Khan could not be produced over security concerns.
Last year, the cricket star-turned-politician suffered multiple gunshot wounds to the legs during an assassination attempt at a political rally. Mr Khan has repeatedly raised concerns over the threat to his life.
“It has been informed that the PTI chairman faces security risks of a serious scale,” it said.
The next hearing in the case will take place on Friday, PTI officials said.
Mr Khan was indicated for allegedly revealing state secrets, a charge that legal experts and his team say carries a sentence ranging from life imprisonment to the death penalty.
Mr Khan’s close aide Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who was the deputy in his PTI party, is a co-defendant in the case. Both have denied the charges during the trial at Adiyala Prison and say they are politically motivated.
The case against the former prime minister is related to his speech following his ouster in a no-confidence vote in parliament in 2022 when he waved a purported confidential diplomatic letter at a rally.
The document – dubbed the “Cipher” by Pakistani media – has not been made public by either the government or Mr Khan’s lawyers. But it is believed to include diplomatic correspondence between the Pakistani ambassador to Washington and the foreign ministry in Islamabad.
Mr Khan had called the document proof of his allegations that his ouster was a US conspiracy allegedly executed by the military and his political opponents.
Washington and Pakistan’s military have denied the claim.
It comes as Pakistan is gearing up for general elections which are slated to be held in the last week of January 2024.
Mr Khan is not eligible to run for parliament due to his conviction in an earlier corruption case that includes a five-year ban on him contesting elections.