Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, currently in jail facing myriad charges he says are rigged to keep him from contesting elections next year, was replaced Saturday as head of the party he founded, officials said.
Khan launched the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in 1996, failing to win a single seat in an election the next year but growing rapidly to become the biggest bloc in the National Assembly following the 2018 vote, propelling him to the premiership. He was ousted last year in a vote of no confidence brought by a coalition headed by two long-established parties that have shared power for much of Pakistan's history, when the military hasn't been in charge.
Khan, who has been locked up since August while awaiting trial in several cases, including an allegation of leaking state documents, was replaced as party chairman by Gohar Khan, a barrister not related to Imran, a party official said.
The change was forced after the Election Commission of Pakistan warned PTI last month they risked losing their emblem -- a cricket bat -- unless an internal ballot was held for party officers.
Election symbols are crucial in a country where the adult literacy rate is just 58 percent, according to World Bank data. Khan, a former international cricketer, who captained Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992, was barred from standing in the party poll while in prison.
"This is a temporary arrangement," said Syed Zulfiqar Bukhari, PTI's media spokesman.
PTI is struggling against a widespread crackdown, with leading party figures either jailed or forced to leave the party.
Politicians in the South Asian country are often tangled in legal proceedings that rights monitors say are orchestrated by the powerful military, which has ruled the country directly for more than half of its history and continues to enjoy immense power.
"A PTI supporter will vote for the election symbol, for Imran Khan," political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi told AFP on Saturday.
"He (Khan) remains the moral leader of the PTI."
Also on Saturday, a hearing into a graft case Khan faces at a special court inside the jail where he is held was adjourned, with his lawyers protesting that media had been barred despite another judge ordering the trial to be open.
On Wednesday, a court quashed a graft conviction against three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned from self-imposed exile in October to launch a political comeback.
Sharif is currently on bail appealing several convictions for corruption in an attempt to clear his name ahead of elections scheduled in February.
His younger brother Shehbaz Sharif came to power in the coalition that ousted Khan.