GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 808, 2 February 2024

Cipher case verdict: Imran Khan and Shah Mehmood Qureshi receive ten-year sentence
Shamini Velayutham

What happened?
On 30 January, a special court under the Official Secrets Act, handed out a 10 year prison sentence each to former Prime Minister Imran Khan and former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in the ‘cipher case’. Judge Abual Hasnat Zulqarnain of the special court rendered the verdict. The court enquired about the cipher to Imran, and he responded: “I have said the same in my statement that I do not know. The cipher was in my office.” The judgment has come amid a “state crackdown” on PTI which has also been stripped of its electoral symbol. The ruling has also come just nine days before the general elections which are set for 8 February. In the run up to the elections, both Qureshi and Imran have been in jail.  However, while Qureshi received approval to run for a National Assembly seat from Thar, Imran Khan’s candidacy was denied. The current conviction means that neither of them will be allowed to run for office for the next five years.
What was the cipher controversy?
In March 2022, PTI leader and Former Prime Minister Imran showed a letter at a PTI rally claiming to have proof that an international plot was underway to overthrow his government. This development came as the opposition had submitted a no-confidence move against him.
By April 2022, the no-confidence motion against Imran had been successful, despite the PTI government’s insistence that a foreign plot was behind the attempt to remove the ruling party. It is to be noted that Imran became the first prime minister in Pakistani history to be ousted from office in this way.
In August 2022, The Intercept, a US-based news agency, released the diplomatic cipher’s contents, which Imran had used as evidence of a US plot to overthrow his government earlier. The Intercept claimed that the cipher cable allegedly contained an account of a meeting between US State Department official Lu and Pakistani envoy Asad. According to the contents of the cable, the US disagreed with Imran’s foreign policy over the conflict in Ukraine.
In September 2022, several recordings of well-known politicians were also released, one of them showed Imran talking with his then-principal secretary Azam Khan about what was now known as the cipher. The former prime minister told Azam to “play up” the danger and project the cipher as a foreign plot to overthrow his administration. However, he warned against identifying any country.
How did the cipher court proceedings begin?
In August 2023, under the Officials Secrets Act, the Federal Investigation Agency registered First Information Report (FIR) against Imran and Qureshi. According to the FIR, Imran, Qureshi, and other associates were involved in propagating information from a secret classified document (a cipher telegram dated 7 March 2022, sent to the Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Parep Washington) to unapproved individuals, or the general public, by manipulating the truth in order to further their own agendas and benefit themselves at the expense of country’s security.
On 28 December 2023, a week after the Special Court (Official Secrets Act) restarted the cipher trial, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) ordered a stay on the in-camera sessions until 11 January 2024 and stated that the case contained “legal errors.” The order was passed by IHC Justice Miangul Hasan. The written ruling ordered that further hearings be halted “in order to prevent these proceedings from becoming fait accompli” and indicated that the special court was continuing with a daily trial in violation of the apex court’s direction. On 11 January, the state attorney’s assurance that the witness statements would be recorded again prompted the court to revoke its stay order on the case proceedings.
What are the responses from legal experts?
On 30 January, an article in Dawn shared some of the responses from legal experts and advocates on the verdict. Lawyer Rida Hosain criticized the judgment on the grounds that there was no justification for not granting both Imran and Qureshi the right to be represented by a counsel of their own choice. She further argued that the right to a fair trial “is enshrined in the Constitution as an independent and absolute right.” Similarly, Lawyer Basil Nabi Malik criticized the verdict on grounds of speed by saying: “There are times when legal decisions assume a political flavor, and then there are times when politics is cloaked with a legal cover. There may be some who would defend the processes culminating in the overall conviction in the instant matter, but it is problematic on many levels.” Abdul Moiz Jaferii, another attorney, questioned the expeditious conclusion of the case as well as the reasoning behind the 10-year sentence. Subsequently, Lawyer Mirza Moiz Baig said that the verdict has raised concerns over the “integrity and impartiality of the court.” He further said: “Concerns with respect to the accused’s right to due process and fair trial are also aggravated by the fact that they were not represented by lawyers of their choosing.”
What are the other responses?
PTI has strongly condemned the verdict and advised the party supporters to not create havoc pertaining to law and order. PTI spokesperson said: “Don’t throw even a pebble at anyone because it will go against the party and its founding chairman. We need to concentrate on the elections and our focus should be on winning the election.” According to a statement released by PTI on X: “A complete mockery and disregard of the law in the cipher case shall not lead us to forget our primary responsibility in order to provide justice to Imran and Qureshi.” Gohar Khan, the current chairman of the PTI, claimed that the special court judge had delivered the decision in a hurry and that the processes were not being carried out in line with the law or the Constitution. Meanwhile, addressing a gathering in Haroonabad, Bahawalnagar PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif accused Imran of his flawed policies. He said: “I have personally endured injustice, but despite that, I did not allow any harm to come to Pakistan. I did not compromise on national security, nor did I disclose national secrets. However, after sensing that he was about to lose power, Imran Khan attacked Pakistan.” Subsequently, Rana Sanaullah, a former Interior Minister and PML-N leader, asserted that Imran had utilized the cipher for political gain and that there was no question that it was a classified document. Speaking to Geo News, Sanaullah said: “The punishment is completely justified, and it was given via legal means. They (PTI) have the right to appeal this decision and even go to the Supreme Court.”
What’s next?
On 30 January, an opinion piece in Dawn by Zahid Hussain titled, “The conviction and after,” stated that the current political climate of Pakistan is likely to be disturbed after the sentence delivered against the former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Hussain asserted: What is most worrisome is that Khan’s conviction could widen the existing political polarization and fuel instability in the country, threatening the entire democratic process.” Despite the verdict, PTI party workers are working intensively to compete with their rivals in the forthcoming elections. Furthermore, the PTI has also decided to challenge the verdict in the Islamabad High Court.
Umer Burney, “Imran Khan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi sentenced to 10 years in jail in cipher case,”Dawn, 31 January 2024
What is the cipher case?Dawn, 31 January 2024
Cipher case verdict: Legal and political experts criticise ‘speed, transparency’ of verdict,”Dawn, 31 January 2024
Zahid Hussain, “The conviction and after,”Dawn, 31 January 2024
Malik Asad, “Imran, Qureshi get 10 years in ‘hasty’ sentence,”Dawn, 31 January 2024
Wajih Ahmad Sheikh, “Verdict slammed, endorsed by legal eagles along party lines,”Dawn, 31 January 2024
Imran’s pre-exit ‘attack’ on Pakistan: Nawaz,” The Express Tribune, 31 January 2024

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