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Pakistan ex-PM Khan stays in jail despite suspension of sentence

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan, gestures as he speaks to the members of the media at his residence in Lahore

By Asif Shahzad and Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - A Pakistani high court on Tuesday suspended jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan's sentence on corruption charges, but he will remain behind bars as a judge had already ordered his detention in another case.

The 70-year-old former cricket star has been at the centre of a political crisis since he was ousted in a parliamentary vote of confidence in April 2022. The worst economic conditions in Pakistan in decades have compounded the crisis.

Khan was imprisoned on Aug. 5 after being sentenced to three years jail for unlawfully selling state gifts during his tenure as prime minister from 2018 to 2022.

The conviction has also barred him from contesting elections for five years.

On Tuesday, a court order said the sentence was suspended.

"We feel that the applicant is entitled to the suspension of sentence and be released on bail," it said.

Khan's lawyer Naeem Panjutha also announced the suspension on social media, saying "God be praised."

Despite the court ordering his release on bail, this will not get him out of jail as a judge had already ordered his detention in another case of leaking state secret. The judge directed authorities to produce Khan before him on Wednesday, according to an order seen by Reuters.

Nor will the suspension of the corruption sentence undo the ban on Khan's contesting elections as long as the conviction remains. National elections are due later this year and a caretaker government was appointed this month, but voting is likely to be delayed several months.

Khan's appeal petition had sought an immediate suspension of the sentence pending a final decision on his conviction on the grounds that he was convicted without being given the right to defend himself in a summary trial.

The prosecution, and Khan's political opponents, say the court accelerated the trial only after he ignored dozens of summons and arrest warrants for months.

STATE SECRETS

In the state secrets matter, a Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) case seen by Reuters said the former premier had been charged with making public the contents of a confidential cable sent by Pakistan's ambassador to the United States and using it for political gain.

Khan's top aide, former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has already been arrested and questioned in the case.

Khan alleges that the cable proves his removal was at the behest of the United States, which he said pressed Pakistan's military to topple his government because he had visited Russia shortly before its invasion on Ukraine in February 2022.

Washington and the Pakistani military have denied that.

Khan's deteriorating relations with the powerful military, which traditionally decides who will rule the country, led to his fall.

The possible overturning of Khan's graft conviction is pending a detailed hearing in the court, according to a lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii.

"(Khan) being left at liberty is now hindered by him being required by the police and relevant investigation agencies in the multitude of other cases instituted against him," Jaferii said.

Khan faces dozens of cases, including charges of corruption, abetment to murder, treason and orchestrating violent protests that followed his initial arrest in May. He denies all the charges, terming them politically motivated cases.

Khan's party has called for his immediate release.

"Arresting him in any other case will cause further damage to our national integrity and repute of judicial system," Khan aide Zulfikar Bukhari said on social media.

"Let the innocent be free!" (The story has been refiled to change the day from Wednesday to Tuesday in paragraph 5)

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Gibran Peshimam in Karachi; Additional reporting by Ariba Shahid; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Alex Richardson and Angus MacSwan)