Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan was disqualified Friday from running for political office for five years, after the election commission ruled he misled officials about gifts he received from foreign leaders while in power.
The decision is the latest twist in political wrangling that began even before Khan’s April ouster, and is one of several legal battles being fought by the former international cricket star and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
Dozens of his supporters attacked vehicles as they left the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) headquarters after the ruling, and police detained one of Khan’s security guards after he fired a shot into the ground.
In the eastern city of Lahore, his supporters blocked some roads, while in Faisalabad, they used burning tyres to stop traffic.
On Twitter, Islamabad police said security in the capital was on “high alert”.
“The ECP has declared Imran Khan was involved in corrupt practices,” Gohar Khan, one of his lawyers, told AFP, adding he had been disqualified for five years.
“We are going to challenge it in the Islamabad High Court right now.”
Pakistan’s courts are often used to tie up lawmakers in lengthy proceedings that rights monitors criticise for stifling political opposition, but the commission’s involvement in this case stems from the obligation of elected officials to declare all their assets.
The case centres on a government department known as “Toshakhana”, which during the Mughal era referred to the “treasure houses” kept by the sub-continent’s princely rulers to store and display gifts lavished on them.
Government officials must declare all gifts, but are allowed to keep those below a certain value.
More expensive items must go to Toshakhana, but in some cases the recipient can buy them at around 50 percent of their value — a discount Khan raised from 20 percent while in office.
Pakistani newspapers have for months carried lurid stories alleging Khan and his wife received lavish gifts worth millions during trips abroad — including luxury watches, jewellery, designer handbags and perfumes.
Khan has said he did not register some gifts on national security grounds, but in a written submission admitted buying items worth nearly 22 million rupees ($100,000), and later selling them for more than twice that amount.
Unless overturned by the courts, Khan’s ban will stymie one of his key tactics to disrupt the country’s political process as he presses for a general election ahead of the one scheduled for October next year.
All PTI lawmakers have quit the National Assembly — parliament’s lower house — forcing a series of by-elections.
In most of them so far, Khan has been his party’s only candidate.
This week he won six of eight National Assembly seats he stood for in a weekend by-election, a vote he called a referendum on his popularity.
Individuals can stand in multiple constituencies in Pakistani elections and choose which to forfeit if they win more than one.
Khan regularly holds rallies drawing tens of thousands of people across the country, giving fiery speeches criticising state institutions — including the powerful military — for allegedly conspiring to topple his government.
He has also vowed to soon announce the date of a “long march” of his supporters on the capital.
Khan rode to power in 2018 on a populist platform promising social reforms, religious conservatism and a fight against corruption, overturning decades of rule by two feuding political dynasties interspersed with military takeovers.
But under his tenure, the economy stagnated and he lost the support of the army, which was accused of helping to get him elected.
Khan’s opponents were delighted by the Election Commission’s ruling.
“He who would spread lies about alleged corruption of his political opponents has been caught red handed,” tweeted Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Legal experts and analysts were more circumspect, however.
“The silver lining for Mr Khan is that… he hasn’t been disqualified by the apex court so he has a right of appeal,” independent lawyer Osama Malik told AFP.
“This decision will escalate the political tension in the country and the situation will deteriorate,” said analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi.