Special court allows in-camera trial of Imran, Qureshi in cipher case

Published December 14, 2023
This combo photo shows PTI Chairman Imran Khan (left) and Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi. — Photos courtesy: DawnNewsTV/CNN Screenshot
This combo photo shows PTI Chairman Imran Khan (left) and Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi. — Photos courtesy: DawnNewsTV/CNN Screenshot

The special court on Thursday accepted the Federal Investigation Agency’s plea seeking an in-camera trial of former prime minister Imran Khan and ex-foreign minister Shah Mahmood in the cipher case.

It began the cipher trial afresh at the Adiala district jail after the pair were indicted for a second time yesterday, according to reporters allowed to attend the hearing.

The cipher case pertains to a diplomatic document that the FIA’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.

Imran and Qureshi were initially indicted in the case on Oct 23. Both had pleaded not guilty. The trial was being held at Adiala Jail and four witnesses had alre­a­dy recorded their statements when the Islamabad High Court (IHC) termed the government’s notification for a jail trial “erroneous” and scrap­ped the entire proceedings.

As a result of the judgment, the special court started fresh proceedings. On Monday, the former premier had challenged the process of his indictment in the cipher case in the IHC, urging it to halt the proceedings till deciding on the petition.

A day ago, the special court, established under the Official Secrets Act 1923, had indicted Imran and Qureshi for a second time.

However, the ex-premier’s legal team disputed the impression, with Barrister Salman Safdar saying that the court did not indict the two PTI leaders as none of them had signed any document. But officials in the prosecution had told Dawn that since the judge had told the accused persons about the charges, the process of indictment had been completed.

Separately, speaking to the media after the hearing yesterday, Imran’s sister Aleema Khan lamented she was “not seeing justice being served”.

“We are followed when we go out of our homes. We are told we will be put in jail. [But] we are not afraid,” she had said.

Noting that her brother “could be sentenced to death in this case” as per the offence, Aleema claimed that US diplomat Donald Lu had sent the cipher to ex-army chief retired Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Today, the FIA urged Special Court Judge Abual Hasnat Zulqar­nain to allow the trial to be held in-camera, which he accepted, despite ruling last month that the proceedings would continue at the Adiala Jail but in an open court.

The court said the next hearing would be heard in-camera, which it adjourned until tomorrow (Friday). It further ruled that family members of the suspects would be allowed to attend the hearing.

Open trial ‘need of justice’: Qureshi’s daughter

Speaking to the media after today’s hearing, Qureshi’s daughter Mehr Bano asserted that an open trial was the “requirement of justice”.

The PTI vice-chairman’s counsel Barrister Taimur Malik told reporters that the charge sheet was “the same as the one the IHC dismissed”.

Noting that “two important personalities” were in jail, the lawyer said the matter was now “ambiguous”. Malik said he still hoped for justice from the courts, adding that the lawyers could consider challenging the proceedings of framing the charge.

Lawyer Umair Niazi quoted Imran as saying that the ongoing deportation drive of undocumented immigrants was a violation of human rights.

Niazi further said that the former premier rejected PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif’s statements on improving ties with neighbouring countries, including India, as “we cannot sacrifice Kashmir”.

Prior to the hearing today, FIA Special Prosecutor Raja Rizwan Abbasi told reporters that the witnesses in the case will be produced before the court.

He further said that the FIA has filed a petition seeking an in-camera hearing of the case under section 14 (exclusion of public from proceedings) of the Secrets Act.

“If this matter was not secret, then there would not have been an FIR. How can a secret matter be made public?” Abbasi asked.

The prosecutor insisted that regardless of whether the suspects had signed the charge sheet or not, the charges had been framed.

The hearing

During the hearing, both PTI leaders’ counsels appeared before Judge Zulqarnain, along with the special prosecutor while Imran’s sisters and wife Bushra Bibi were also present in the courtroom.

Presenting his arguments in the plea seeking a confidential trial, Abbasi argued that the proceedings should be held in-camera under section 14 of the Secrets Act as the case had been filed under the same laws.

The FIA prosecutor argued that section 14 dictated that a secret trial should be held considering the “context and circumstances”, adding that the situation of the cipher case required the same.

Abbasi added that the FIA wanted “secrecy to be kept in mind” while recording the testimonies of the witnesses.

Here, Qureshi’s counsel Ali Bukhari argued that they had already challenged the notification for a jail trial and an in-camera hearing in the IHC.

He recalled that the PTI lawyers came to know about the indictment through the media, at which the court asked where he was during the hearing yesterday as the “charges were framed in front of everyone”.

Barrister Taimur Malik, another of Qureshi’s lawyers, asserted that the special court “could not ignore the trial as per the IHC’s directives.

The court then reserved its verdict on the FIA’s plea seeking in-camera proceedings.

IHC dismisses plea seeking immediate stay on trial

Meanwhile, the IHC dismissed Imran’s petition seeking an immediate stay order on the cipher trial, seeking reports from the respondents by Dec 20.

Justice Miangul Hasan Aurangzeb presided over the hearing, observing the court would review the plea once the parties had submitted their reports.

Sikander Zulqarnain Saleem, the petitioner’s counsel, contended that the trial court judge did not have the notification for the jail trial being allowed when he fixed the date for the PTI leaders’ indictment.

He said, “Our stance is that when there was no notification for a jail trial in front of the judge, how could he pass an order after conducting a hearing?”

The court inquired whether the government’s notification for the jail trial was issued later, to which the lawyer replied that he was not aware of it.

Saleem asserted that it was the government’s duty to determine the venue of the hearing and not the judge’s.

Justice Aurangzeb then stated that it was the judge’s authority to do so and that he could choose jail as the venue for trial but observed that it should be an open court.

The counsel urged the court to issue a stay order immediately on the cipher trial, at which the IHC said it would decide the case after reviewing reports from the respondents. It then adjourned the hearing till Dec 20.

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