ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's elections commission on Friday disqualified former Prime Minister Imran Khan from holding public office for five years, after finding he had unlawfully sold state gifts and concealed assets as premier, officials said.
The move is likely to deepen lingering political turmoil in the impoverished Islamic country struggling with a spiraling economy, food shortages and the aftermath of unprecedented floods this summer that killed 1,725 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and triggered a surge in malaria and other flood-related disease.
The announcement by the commission comes as Khan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote in the parliament in April, has been rallying supporters against the new government and calling for early elections.
Dozens of angry Khan supporters gathered Friday outside the commission headquarters in the capital, Islamabad, chanting slogans against its decision. Security forces and paramilitary troops cordoned off the compound, blocking the crowd from getting inside.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, who is not related to the former premier, hailed the decision and said that Imran Khan would now be tried in a court of law. Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar said the commission's disqualification would last for five years and that the body had also recommended that Khan be tried on charges of concealing assets.
"You have never earned so much money in your whole life than you did by selling the gifts given to you" by heads of foreign countries, the interior minister said, addressing Khan.
Officials and legal experts said Friday's decision meant Khan would automatically lose his seat in the National Assembly. Under Pakistani law, the commission has the authority to disqualify politicians from office but is separate from the judiciary.
Khan cannot appeal the commission's decision except in court.
Khan's lawyers have denied the allegations against him
A senior leader in Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party, Fawad Chaudhry, condemned the decision and urged Khan's supporters to rally in the streets. He said there was no ban on Khan from leading his party. Khan's lawyers have denied the allegations against him, saying he "bought back" the gifts from the state and later sold some of them lawfully.
Another senior party leader, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said that their legal team would challenge the commission's decision.
Earlier Friday, Balkh Ser Khosa, a prominent lawyer, said the disqualification happened because Khan unlawfully sold state gifts given to him by other countries when he was in power. Khosa also said Khan hid the profits he earned from those sales from tax authorities.
Elsewhere, hundreds of Khan supporters blocked a key road in the northwestern city of Peshawar, disrupting traffic. There were also small rallies in the port city of Karachi and in other places.
The government deploys security forces in the capital
In Rawalpindi, Khan's supporters briefly clashed with police but dispersed when security forces swung batons and fired tear gas, according to local media reports. The government deployed additional security forces in Islamabad to maintain law and order.
The developments came days before Khan was expected to announce another march on Islamabad to force the government of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to hold snap elections.
After his ouster, Khan led a march on Islamabad in May but called off the rally after violence erupted and his supporters clashed with police. He has since been promising to hold the final round of his political fight in Islamabad.
The commission's decision followed a petition from Sharif's coalition government, seeking action against Khan over allegations that he unlawfully sold state gifts he had received from heads of other states when he was in power. Such gifting is not uncommon in many countries but while in Pakistan, leaders are allowed to buy back the gifts, they are not usually sold. If they are sold, individuals have to declare that as income.
Khan has claimed that his government was toppled by Sharif under a U.S. plot — claims that both the premier and Washington have denied. Sharif's government has also rejected Khan's demand for early elections, saying the vote will be held as scheduled, next year.
Sharif tweeted later Friday that no one was above the law. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said on Twitter that Khan, "who would spread lies about alleged corruption of his political opponents has been caught red-handed."
Khan, who came to power after the 2018 elections, initially enjoyed excellent ties with army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. The military has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 75 years.
Later, Khan openly resisted the appointment by Bajwa of a new spy chief to replace Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, a Khan favorite. Bajwa eventually removed Hameed, which caused a rift between Khan and Bajwa that eventually led to the prime minister's ouster.