In a major blow to former prime minister Imran Khan, Pakistan's top election body on Friday disqualified him from holding public office for five years in the Toshakhana case for hiding proceeds from the sale of gifts he received from foreign leaders.
After the consensus ruling by a four-member bench headed by chief election commissioner Sikander Sultan Raja, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chairman cannot become a member of the parliament for five years.
The decision was taken unanimously by the five-member bench. However, the member from Punjab was not present for the announcement.
The ECP in its ruling stated that Khan was disqualified under Article 63(1)(p) of the Constitution with sections 137 and 173 of the Elections Act, 2017 for 'intentionally and deliberately' violating those provisions, as he 'has made false statement and incorrect declaration before the commission in the statement of assets and liabilities filed by him for the year 2020-21.'
"We are of the considered opinion that the respondent has become disqualified under Article 63(1)(p) of the Constitution read with Section 137,167 and 173 of the Elections Act, 2017, consequently he ceases to be a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan and his seat has become vacant accordingly," it said.
It further state that Khan by making false statements and incorrect declaration committed the "offence of corrupt practices".
It is also said that after the verdict, Khan could also cease to be the PTI chief as per an earlier judgement by the Supreme Court in February 2018 when it ruled that an individual disqualified under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution could not serve as head of a political party.
However there is confusion whether the five year disqualification would apply only to the five years term of the current assembly, or the disqualification period would start from the date of the verdict by the ECP.
The tenure of the current national assembly began in August 2018 and would be completed in 2023. Khan already tendered resignation as a lawmaker in April but it was not accepted. In this case, his disqualification would end with the expiry of the tenure of the assembly.
The ruling comes days after 70-year-old Khan's party on Monday swept the crucial by-elections, winning six out of eight National Assembly seats and two out of three provincial assembly seats. Khan, who contested seven National Assembly seats in the crucial by-elections held on Sunday, emerged victorious in six constituencies.
The verdict comes as a big blow to Khan, who has been rallying supporters against the Shehbaz Sharif-led government and calling for early elections.
The ruling coalition government lawmakers had filed a case with the ECP in August against Khan seeking his disqualification for failing to reveal the proceeds from the sale of gifts that he purchased at a discounted price from the state repository, also called Toshakhana.
The ECP after hearing the case had reserved its judgment on September 19 on the conclusion of the proceedings.
The bench of the ECP on Friday unanimously ruled that Khan was involved in corrupt practices and was disqualified as a member of the parliament. It also announced that action would be taken against him under the corrupt practices laws.
Interior minister Rana Sanaullah hailed the ruling and said that Khan would now be tried in a court of law.
Senior PTI leader Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters after a party meeting chaired by Khan that the party has decided to challenge the Election Commission's verdict in the Islamabad high court.
"Our lawyer will challenge it as soon as the detailed verdict is issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan," he said.
He said that the party discussed its strategy in the wake of the new development and another meeting was scheduled later in the evening for more discussion on the situation.
Reflecting on the constitutional role of the ECP during a press conference earlier on Friday, Qureshi said that "a minus one formula will not be acceptable".
"The ECP is a constitutional institution," said Qureshi, noting that "free, fair, and credible elections" was the responsibility of the watchdog. "In no way will a minus one formula be considered acceptable," he added.
Meanwhile, there were reports of protests in various cities against the decision including an incident of firing by a police guard of a lawmaker near the ECP building. Later, the guard as well as the lawmaker were arrested.
Law minister Azam Tarar in his reaction termed the verdict as "appropriate" and based on merit.
"He (Khan) has been disqualified for five years and the ECP has also asked for his trial in a court of law for concealing assets," he said.
Khan, who came to power in 2018 apparently received expensive gifts from rich Arab rulers during official visits, which were deposited in the Toshakhana. Later, he bought the same at a discounted price as per the relevant laws and sold the same at hefty profits but failed to reveal the same to the ECP.
Though morally apprehensive for rulers like Khan, who always takes a high moral ground and leaves no occasion to castigate his opponents as 'corrupt', the purchase and sale were legally allowed.
The former premier informed the ECP during the hearing that the sale of the gifts that he had procured from the state treasury after paying Rs 21.56 million fetched about Rs 58 million.
The gifts, among others, included a Graff wristwatch, a pair of cufflinks, an expensive pen, a ring and four Rolex watches.
According to his opponents, Khan failed to show the sales in the income tax returns, making him liable.
The case filed with the ECP seeks his disqualification under Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution which suggests disqualification if someone is not truthful.
Khan on Friday accused the election body of colluding with the government to disqualify him in the concealment of assets in the Toshakhana case and vowed to continue fighting against 'thieves'.
Khan issued a recorded message after chairing two back-to-back meetings of his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party at his Banigala residence in the suburbs of Islamabad after his disqualification.
"The entire nation took to the streets against the illegal decision by the ECP," he said and announced to challenge the verdict in the Islamabad high court.
He maintained that Raja failed to take action on various complaints by the PTI, including stalling legislation on the use of electronic voting machines in elections.
"I knew beforehand that he (Raja) would disqualify me; I already sent a message to my party leaders about it," Khan said.
"I will give you a call and it will be the biggest protest of the country which will continue until we get real freedom," he told his supporters.
Established in 1974, the Toshakhana is a department under the administrative control of the Cabinet Division and stores precious gifts given to rulers, parliamentarians, bureaucrats, and officials by heads of other governments and states and foreign dignitaries.
Khan was ousted from power in April after losing a no-confidence vote in his leadership, which he alleged was part of a US-led conspiracy targeting him because of his independent foreign policy decisions on Russia, China and Afghanistan.
The cricketer-turned-politician, who came to power in 2018, is the only Pakistani Prime Minister to be ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament..