By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan pleaded not guilty to charges of leaking state secrets under an indictment on Wednesday that dealt a new blow to his chances of contesting Pakistan’s general election in February.
The charges are related to a classified cable sent to Islamabad by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington last year, which Khan is accused of making public.
“The charges were read out loudly in the courtroom,” government prosecutor Shah Khawar told Reuters, saying Khan and his co-accused and former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi both denied the charges.
Khan’s lawyer, Barrister Gohar Khan, contested the indictment, saying it would be valid only if signed by the accused.
The former prime minister has previously said the contents of the cable appeared in the media from other sources.
A guilty verdict under the Official Secrets Act could bring up to 10 years in prison, lawyers said.
It is the second time Khan has been indicted on the same charges after a superior court struck down an earlier indictment on technical grounds, saying the correct procedure had not been followed.
The trial is being conducted in jail on security grounds. Khan has been in jail since he was convicted and sentenced to three years on corruption charges on Aug. 5.
Khan says the cable was proof of a conspiracy by the Pakistani military and U.S. government to topple his government in 2022 after he visited Moscow just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Washington and the Pakistan military deny the accusations.
The former international cricketer won the last general election in 2018, a victory which his opponents say was achieved with the backing of the military. Khan and the military later fell out, mainly because of differences over the appointment of the chief of main spy agency.
Khan has had dozens of legal cases filed against him, which he has denounced as an effort to banish him from politics.
The graft sentence has been suspended by a higher court but he remains in prison in connection with other cases, including a charge of instigating violence after one of his arrests.
Khan remains disqualified from contesting elections because of the conviction, but his legal team are pushing for his release on bail and an overturning of the ban.
The new indictment reduces his chances of being released from jail to campaign for his party before the election on Feb. 8 next year.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Writing by Kanjyik Ghosh; editing by Sudipto Ganguly, Shri Navaratnam and Timothy Heritage)