An appeals court in Pakistan suspended former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s three-year prison sentence on Tuesday, the latest twist in a political showdown between Mr. Khan and leaders of the powerful military establishment who appear intent on sidelining him from politics.
Mr. Khan had been arrested earlier this month after a trial court gave him the three-year term in a corruption case — a sentence that Mr. Khan’s legal team appealed. It was not immediately clear on what grounds the Islamabad High Court had suspended the sentence on Tuesday.
The decision offered a legal victory for Mr. Khan, a former cricket star turned populist politician who has been fighting to make a political comeback since he was forced from power last year.
But the victory was a narrow one: Mr. Khan remained in prison Tuesday night, held in custody on charges in a separate case against him.
Now, the possibility that Mr. Khan could remain behind bars or be rearrested even if he is released looms over him. He faces dozens of court cases, part of what he and his allies have characterized as a coordinated effort by the military to keep him out of politics.
The decision shows that the “courts are still going to be reluctant to approve the most brazen violations of due process by the executive — particularly against someone as high profile as Imran Khan — even in this particularly authoritarian moment,” said Yasser Kureshi, a lecturer in South Asian studies at Oxford University.
Still, that may not offer much relief for the embattled leader, Mr. Kureshi added, “as the regime will continue to find ways to keep him in jails and in and out of legal proceedings.”
The announcement of the suspended sentence highlighted the turbulent state of Pakistani politics, which has been consumed by the yearlong showdown between military leaders and Mr. Khan, who was ousted in a vote of no confidence last year.
For a time, Mr. Khan had managed a political rebound, drawing thousands to rallies where he accused military generals of orchestrating his ouster — a claim the military denies.
But in recent months, the political winds seemed to shift, as the military embarked on a sweeping campaign to hollow out Mr. Khan’s political party. Media columnists sympathetic to him were intimidated, supporters who protested against the military were jailed, and party leaders defected in droves after they said they were threatened with criminal charges.
Then, earlier this month, after a trial court sentenced Mr. Khan to three years in prison, the country’s election commission disqualified him from running for office for five years. It was not immediately clear whether the appeals court decision suspending that sentence will affect his disqualification.
Across the country, the intimidation campaign and Mr. Khan’s mounting legal troubles have sent a clear message: Any challenge to the military’s ultimate control over Pakistan’s politics would not be tolerated.
Mr. Khan is expected to appear in court on Wednesday in a separate case against him related to leaking state secrets — a charge that may pose the greatest challenge yet to his future, analysts say.
The special court overseeing that case is widely considered to be more deferential to the military’s wishes, analysts say. Set up last week, the court was established to hear cases under a colonial-era secrets act that was amended earlier this month to give more sweeping powers to the country’s powerful intelligence agency.
The amended law drew widespread criticism from activists and human rights groups, which say it could be used as a tool to lock up the military’s political rivals.
Mr. Khan was charged under the amended secrets act earlier this month — a move that his allies say reflects how Pakistan’s fragile democracy is backsliding as the military consolidates greater control.
“There are powerful forces in the country that are not letting the grudge go against Imran Khan — even if it’s at the cost of the country itself,” said Sayed Zulfiqar Abbas Bukhari, a senior leader of Mr. Khan’s political party, using a veiled reference to the country’s military.
“Draconian, unsaid martial law in the country — effectively that’s what we’re seeing in the country at the moment,” he added.
Salman Masood and Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting.