January 31, 2024
ISLAMABAD – The cipher case pertains to a diplomatic document that the Federal Investigation Agency’s charge sheet alleges was never returned by Imran. The PTI has long held that the document contained a threat from the United States to oust Imran as prime minister.
The verdict comes nine days before the February 8 general elections, which the PTI is contesting amid a state crackdown and without an electoral symbol.
Both Imran and Qureshi have been in jail in the run-up to the elections. While Imran’s candidature was rejected, Qureshi was cleared to run for an NA seat from Thar. But today’s conviction means that both of them have been disqualified from contesting elections for the next five years.
This is Imran’s second conviction as he was also convicted in the Toshakhana case on Aug 5, and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. The Islamabad High Court (IHC) had suspended his sentence. However, a division bench had later rejected Imran’s petition seeking the suspension of the conviction.
This is the former foreign minister’s first conviction.
Special Court Judge Abual Hasnat Zulqarnain announced the verdict in the case. At the outset of the hearing, Imran and Qureshi were given a questionnaire under Section 342 (power to examine the accused) of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
After Imran recorded his statement, the court asked him about the whereabouts of the cipher, to which he replied: “I have said the same in my statement that I do not know. The cipher was in my office.”
The judge then sentenced the two to 10 years in jail in the case. After announcing the verdict, the judge stepped out of the courtroom, at which Qureshi protested that his statement was not recorded.
In an informal conversation with reporters after the hearing, Imran alleged that former army chief Gen (rtd) Qamar Javed Bajwa “conspired” against his government for “extension”.
“Bajwa wanted another extension in November. Shehbaz Sharif had promised him an extension,” the ex-premier claimed, adding that PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif prevented the same from happening as he knew the former army chief’s men were a part of the team probing the Panama Papers case.
PTI decries ‘sham trial’, to challenge verdict in IHC
In a post on X, PTI’s official account issued a statement saying that Pakistan stood with Imran and Qureshi “who defended Pakistan and stood for haqeeqi azadi”.
“No such sham trial can change what happened in March-April 2022, on the orders of Donald Lu,” the statement added.
“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.”
The statement urged the public to come out and vote on February 8.
“God willing kaptaan and vice kaptaan will be back soon, and this sentence will be (thrown) in the dustbin in the appeal stage,” it concluded.
PTI leader Gohar Khan said that the special court judge had announced the verdict in haste, adding that proceedings were not being conducted in accordance with the law and the Constitution.
“He asked questions himself and the way our witness was cross-examined, you cannot find any such examples in history,” he said while speaking to the media outside the Islamabad High Court.
He requested all the “well-wishers” of the country to show patience and not react to the court order in any capacity.
“We trust the high and the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, we will eventually get relief. Even if they convict us then it would be quashed […] Do not get angry, don’t take the law in your hands. You do not have to throw a single stone, you should show patience,” he said.
Speaking to the media in Islamabad, Imran’s sister Aleema Khan alleged that someone was “giving instructions” to Judge Zulqarnain.
She said that as the cross-examination of the witnesses had to begin, “names of others started coming forward, including Donald Lu, who sent the message (cipher), and General [Qamar Javed] Bajwa, who received it.”
Aleema said the sentence was given due to the fear of Lu, the US State Department official, and ex-army chief Gen Bajwa being summoned for cross-examination.
She urged “100 per cent” of the voters to voice their opinion in the upcoming general elections, saying there would be “no better revenge” than that.
PTI Secretary General Omar Ayub Khan urged party workers to “remain calm and not indulge in any activity that undermines our traditional stance of a peaceful struggle”.
“We will appeal against this decision in the high court and continue our battle,” he said. “The current kangaroo court ruling will not deter us from foregoing this principle come what may,” he added.
“We should harness and channel these energies for the polling day on February 8 to ensure that PM Imran Khan’s nominated candidates are returned to the assemblies with a thumping majority,” he said.
“Sham trial. Sham decision. It will be reversed. Don’t fall in their trap. Our vote on February 8 will be our first response,” said PTI’s Taimur Jhagra.
Former National Assembly speaker Asad Qaiser termed the court’s decision “extremely painful” and “controversial”, adding that the legal requirements for the case were not carried out.
“It is absolutely clear that the decision is biased. God willing, we will challenge it in the high court and the Supreme Court,” he said in a video statement, adding that the decision was rushed by the courts.
“There were two proceedings in one day so the people are clear that this was the murder of justice,” the PTI leader said. “We will get our revenge by voting,” he said, expressing hope that the verdict would be discarded when moved before a higher court.
“I want to tell my workers that they should be encouraged, not to get violent or get disappointed,” Qaiser said.
Speaking to Geo News, PTI counsel Barrister Ali Zafar said he would file an appeal tomorrow in the Islamabad High Court, calling it a “blessing in disguise.”
“The case was going good but in recent days the judge changed everything and this was a mistrial. A criminal trial needs to be a fair trial,” he said.
When asked if 10 years was a long enough punishment for the PTI leaders, Zafar said, “Punishment is handed out when a crime has been committed. There was no crime committed, and no trial held.”
PML-N says sentence ‘justified’, ‘win for state’
Former interior minister and PML-N leader Rana Sanaullah said there was no debate that the cipher was a classified document, claiming that Imran had used the document for political purposes.
Speaking to Geo News, he 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 the Supreme Court meted out to the PTI in terms of disqualifying a political party is completely different from jeopardising national security,” Sanaullah added.
In a press conference later, PML-N leader and former law minister Azam Nazeer Tarar said Imran “used a classified document to save his government” and “made a joke out of the Official Secrets Act”.
“Without worrying about Pakistan’s foreign affairs, he used the document to dissolve Pakistan’s National Assembly — which was later overturned by the Supreme Court,” he recalled.
Tarar said that an inquiry was later initiated in the case by the then cabinet but Imran never found it necessary to respond or defend himself. He further stated that even during the trial proceedings, the PTI founder boycotted the hearings several times. “At the end of the day, the law had to take its own course.”
“It was also reported that Imran recorded a detailed statement in which he admitted to revealing the contents of the cipher and losing the confidential document,” Tarar claimed. “But despite all this, Imran was apt that none of the charges against him amounted to a criminal offence.”
He added that the matters of relief and punishment were between the suspect and the court. “I believe that we should look at it as a purely judicial matter,” Tarar said.
Meanwhile, PML-N leader Attaullah Tarar said the cipher matter was “clear from day one”, alleging that the national security of the country was put on the line to gain political mileage.
Speaking to DawnNewsTV, he said Imran’s lawyers did not present themselves before the court and opted for delaying tactics.
“Today is the win for the state of Pakistan,” he added. “Enemies of Pakistan made fun of us over all this. Anti-Pakistan lobbies published articles.”
The PML-N leader said the punishment was according to the law and no one had the right to violate the Official Secrets Act.
The former premier and Qureshi, who is also behind bars, were first indicted in the case in October. Both had pleaded not guilty. The IHC had termed the government’s notification for a jail trial “erroneous” and scrapped the entire proceedings.
On December 22, the Supreme Court had approved the post-arrest bails of Imran and Qureshi. While Imran remained incarcerated in other cases, Qureshi’s expected release was also stalled as he was manhandled and re-arrested in a fresh May 9 case.
Days later, Justice Miangul Hasan Aurangzeb had restrained the special court from proceeding against the suspects — including Qureshi — till Jan 11, noting that there were “legal errors” in the case.
However, the stay order on the in-camera trial was withdrawn earlier this month after the state counsel assured that the witnesses’ statements would be recorded afresh.
On January 18, the special court had recorded the statement of five witnesses, including former principal secretary Azam Khan. Other witnesses comprised Aneesur Rehman, Javed Iqbal, Hidayatullah and Mohammad Ashfaq.
Azam Khan claimed that the cipher never returned to his office and he had intimated the prime minister, his military secretary as well as the relevant staff numerous times.
In a subsequent hearing, Imran had claimed that the cipher was still with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and he received a rephrased version of the diplomatic cable.
On January 22, the special court recorded the statement of another four witnesses, including ex-foreign secretary Sohail Mehmood and former interior secretary Yousaf Naseem Khokhar.
Mehmood had said that the copy sent to the ex-PM was never returned while Qureshi said that he returned the copy to the ministry and the ex-secretary replied in the affirmative.
The next day, six more prosecution witnesses recorded their statements. Initially, there were 28 witnesses, but only 25 testified before the court after three witnesses were dropped from the list.
Besides Interior Secretary Aftab Akbar Durrani, ex-envoy to the US Asad Majeed recorded his statement in the case. When Majeed concluded that there was no word of “conspiracy” or “threat” in the diplomatic cable, Imran retorted that why the government then issued the demarche to the US.
In the next hearing, the court concluded the cross-examination of four prosecution witnesses.
The FIA prosecutor then alleged that the defence side was applying delaying tactics to prolong the trial and urged the court to close the defence counsel’s right of cross-examination. Subsequently, Judge Zulqarnain appointed Abdul Rehman and Hazrat Younis as defence counsel for both PTI leaders in the next hearing.
Imran had said his lawyers could not appear before the court as they were contesting the upcoming general elections.
He had termed the trial nothing less than a “joke”, saying that the prosecution and defence team both belonged to the government.
A day ago, Imran was reluctant to appear before the judge. However, Qureshi appeared before him to attend the proceedings. The prison authorities allowed only three court reporters to cover the proceedings of the cipher case that continued for over 13 hours.