Imran Khan is only still in jail thanks to ‘weak’ case over marriage to his wife, his party says

The ex-Pakistan PM’s wife married him in 2018 but her former partner says she broke Muslim law  (AFP/ Getty)
The ex-Pakistan PM’s wife married him in 2018 but her former partner says she broke Muslim law (AFP/ Getty)

Pakistan’s former leader Imran Khan married his current wife Bushra Bibi just months before he ascended to the premiership of the country in 2018, making it the popular cricketer-turned-politician’s third marriage after two divorces.

He could not have known at the time that, six years later, the procedure and timings surrounding that wedding would be the only reason he remains behind bars, having been ousted as prime minister in a vote of no confidence and then pursued by the authorities with some 170 criminal charges.

Khan has since been acquitted or granted bail on many of the most serious of those charges – all of which Khan says are politically motivated. The latest example of this came just last week, when Khan was acquitted of exposing state secrets for publicly revealing a diplomatic cable at a political rally in 2022.

That ruling meant that the only offence on Khan’s lengthy charge list keeping him in prison was a ruling from February this year that his marriage to Bibi, 49, in 2018 was un-Islamic and illegal. The judge in the case fined them PKR500,000 (£1,420) and sentenced both to seven years in jail.

“It’s the weakest out of all the cases that was put [against him],” says Syed Zulfikar Bukhari, a close aide of Khan and one of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party’s most senior officials not being held in jail himself.

“All of them were weak but this was especially weak,” Bukhari tells The Independent. “He is in jail now just because he married his wife.”

Bibi’s ex-husband Khawar Maneka alleges her marriage to Khan violated Muslim family law. According to Islamic law, a Muslim widow or a divorcee has to abide by the “iddat” – a waiting period before they can lawfully enter into a new marriage.

According to the Quran, a menstruating woman must observe three monthly cycles before remarriage, while a non-menstruating woman must wait for three lunar months. For widows, the required delay is four months and 10 days. These rules are aimed at eliminating any uncertainty regarding paternity if a woman becomes pregnant shortly before her separation from her spouse or his death.

During both the hearing and in its final ruling, a Pakistani court extensively scrutinised Bibi’s menstrual cycle details – ultimately dismissing her assertion that three cycles had elapsed between her divorce and subsequent marriage to Khan. The court accepted the testimony of Maneka who alleged otherwise. Bibi has claimed previously that Maneka divorced her in April 2017 and that she married Khan on 1 January 2018.

The Dawn newspaper reported in November last year that Maneka said he “half-heartedly” divorced Bibi on 14 November 2017, and had reconciliation in mind before February 2018 but the “premature nikah (Muslim wedding ceremony) during iddat” between Bibi and Khan “frustrated his plans”.

“The cases even before were a joke. Others [cases in which Mr Khan was imprisoned] have been thrown out by the court of law. And those were considered by the opposition as cases with substance,” Bukhari says.

The court judgment was criticised in Pakistan by members of the civil society, women activists, and lawyers as a “blow to women’s right to dignity and privacy”. There were also protests against the ruling party against the “state’s intrusion into people’s private lives”.

It’s a “bogus case of political victimisation”, said another senior PTI official, Gohar Ali Khan, at the time. Khan has often called Bibi his spiritual leader for her devotion to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam.

Khan married Jemima Goldsmith in 1995 at the peak of his cricketing career, with whom he had two sons before they divorced after nine years. His second marriage, to journalist and former BBC weather presenter Reham Khan in 2015, ended in less than a year.

Bukhari alleges that the actions taken against Khan and his party by the authorities were strategically timed to create a public perception of the political irrelevance of both.

“It was done to try to convey, or put a narrative across to the public that Imran Khan or his party is no more for the next 35 years,” he says. However, “that narrative was unsuccessful because people familiar with politics and Imran Khan, as well as the general public, did not accept it, which influenced the way they voted”.

Independent candidates ended up winning 101 seats out of the total of 265, followed by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML) with 75, and Bilawal Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) 54.

Shehbaz Sharif – Nawaz’s brother – from the PML returned as prime minister in an election human rights activists and political experts widely criticised as one of the least credible in Pakistan’s history.

The elections were also marked by the absence of PTI and Khan. Pakistan’s Supreme Court rejected a bid by PTI to keep its traditional electoral symbol, a cricket bat. Khan’s party, known for its strained relations with the military, faced increasing pressure from an army-backed crackdown leading up to the 8 February vote. The independent candidates supporting Khan contested the elections under their own individual symbols.

The Sharif government denies unfairly targetting the opposition party, and says criminal cases against PTI activists mostly stem from the violent protests that erupted when Khan was first arrested in May last year, during which a number of military facilities were attacked. The authorities accused Khan of “instigating violence” and called his rioting supporters “arsonists” exhibiting “enmity against the motherland”.

But Bukhari says the pre-election crackdown on PTI has continued, well over a year after those protests took place.

“There’s a massive crackdown, especially against our social media team and social media activists. The biggest fear that they [the establishment] have is social media because that cannot be contained. So there’s a serious crackdown against social media activists and their families,” he says.

Bukhari cites instances of what he calls “abductions” by the authorities, including that of PTI’s social media lead Azhar Mashwani and two of his brothers. He claims they have been missing for about five to six days.

The Lahore High Court on 7 June directed the Punjab inspector general of police to recover Mashwani’s brothers after they were seemingly picked up by law enforcement agencies, according to the Dawn.

Bukhari also alleges that the brother of Shahbaz Gill, Imran Khan’s former chief of staff, has been detained by the country’s security forces. Bukhari says it is “astonishing that now the family members who are not involved in activism” are being targeted. The government in 2022 had arrested Gill for sedition and inciting the public against state institutions.

The same year Pakistan’s parliament ousted Khan with a no-confidence motion.

When the verdict on the “illegal” marriage case came out in February, there were protests across the country. “It’s a woman’s body and only she can tell you what happened with her, when she was on her period, when she was pregnant. This is why we keep saying ‘mera jism, meri marzi (my body, my choice)’,” activist Farzana Bari said at the time.

In an official statement, Aurat March Islamabad, an activist group, also demanded that the decision be overruled “as failure to do so will establish a precedent that could be exploited by a judiciary itself that is historically inclined towards anti-women rulings”.

Out of four cases where Khan was convicted before the national elections in Pakistan, his sentences in two were suspended pending appeals.