By Kanishka Singh and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The arrest of Imran Khan is Pakistan’s “internal matter”, a U.S. State Department spokesman said on Monday, declining to take a position on the legal troubles of the former prime minister and frequent U.S. critic.
Police arrested Khan in Lahore on Saturday after a court sentenced him to three years in prison for illegally selling state gifts. The guilty verdict could stop the opposition leader from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party from contesting a national election later this year.
Khan denies wrongdoing and maintains the government and the powerful military – which has run the country for about half of its 75-year history – imposed fabricated charges on him.
“We believe that is an internal matter for Pakistan,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a press briefing on Monday, when asked whether the U.S. thought Khan got a fair trial.
“At times there are cases (around the world) that are so obviously unfounded that the United States believes it should say something about the matter. We have not made that determination here,” Miller added.
Khan initially alleged that his ouster from office in a parliamentary vote last year was backed by Washington and orchestrated by Pakistan’s top generals. Washington and the military both denied this.
Analysts noted that the U.S. response to Khan’s legal woes has been muted compared with the prosecution of other opposition figures around the world.
“I think Khan blaming the U.S. for his ouster last year certainly hasn’t helped matters for him. The U.S. has since steered clear of commenting in any specific terms on Pakistan’s politics,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank.
CRITIC OF WASHINGTON
Khan has been a critic of U.S. foreign policy almost throughout his political life. During his years as a rising politician, the former cricket star was among the fiercest critics of U.S. drone attacks targeting militants along the country’s Afghan border, which he termed extra-judicial killings and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
He celebrated the United States’ defeat in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over in 2021 after the withdrawal of NATO and U.S. forces and described it as Afghanistan having broken “the chains of slavery”.
Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington, thinks Khan’s relentless past criticism means he does not have much sympathy in Washington.
“I expect the U.S. to stay quiet,” Kugelman said.
Khan, 70, is the South Asian nation’s most popular leader, according to opinion polls. A separate brief arrest in May on another set of corruption charges sparked deadly unrest, and ended when the Supreme Court called for him to be released.
As arrests of Khan’s party workers increased after the deadly violence and human rights groups alleged abuse of power by Pakistan’s forces, Kugelman said a strong U.S. stance against the crackdown could have been perceived as taking Khan’s side.
“Khan has burned many bridges in DC. He’s not viewed as a terribly sympathetic figure here these days. So the administration (of President Joe Biden) isn’t keen to go out of its way to do him any favors.”
Kugelman said Pakistan was no longer as big a regional priority for Washington as it was while U.S. forces waged a war in neighboring Afghanistan.
(Reporting by Kanishka Singh and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Don Durfee and Alex Richardson)