What is the cipher case?

Dawn.com looks at how the cipher saga started.
Published January 30, 2024

Ex-premier Imran Khan and former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi were handed 10 years in jail in the cipher case on Tuesday by a special court established under the Official Secrets Act.

The case pertains to a diplomatic document that the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) 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.

Dawn.com looks at how the cipher saga started.

Beginnings of a ‘foreign conspiracy’

In March 2022, Imran had waved a letter at a PTI rally, saying he had evidence that an international conspiracy was hatched to topple his government.

“Foreign funding is being used to change the government. Money is coming from abroad and people inside the country are being used. Some of them are unaware they are being used and some are intentionally using this money against us,” Imran had said while reading out a note during his speech.

The development had come as the then-opposition had submitted a no-confidence motion against Imran.

The letter was subsequently shared with members of the then-federal cabinet in a hurriedly called meeting, which was not attended by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan and Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) despite being invited. The letter was shown to the cabinet members on a TV screen.

Imran had also called a selected group of TV anchors and informed them that “the language of the letter was threatening and arrogant” and that Pakistan would face dire consequences if the no-confidence motion failed. However, the then-premier did not show the letter to the media.

As the no-confidence move against Imran gathered steam, he — in an apparent slip of the tongue — proceeded to name the United States as the country behind the letter, only to quickly correct himself and say that it was some other country and not America.

Subsequently, the Natio­nal Security Committee — the country’s top civil-military forum — had expre­ssed “grave concern” over US meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs and decided to lodge a strong protest.

By April 2022, despite the PTI government’s insistence on a foreign conspiracy being behind the move to oust the ruling party, the no-confidence move against Imran was successful — making him the first prime minister in Pakistan’s history to have been removed from office through such a move.

It later emerged that the conversation that set off the so-called scandal took place on March 7 at a farewell lunch for the then-Pakistan ambassador Asad Majeed Khan at his residence, which is also known as Pakistan House.

US officials who attended the lunch included US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu and Deputy Assistant Secretary Lesslie C Viguerie. The Pakistani side comprised Deputy Chief of Mission Syed Naveed Bokhari and the defence attaché.

In September 2022, multiple audios of prominent politicians were leaked, including one featuring Imran discussing what was now known as the cipher with his then-principal secretary Azam Khan.

In the purported clip, the former premier could be heard telling Azam to ‘play up’ the threat and turn it into a foreign plot to oust his government. He cautioned, however, to refrain from naming any country in the threat.

“We only have to play it up. We don’t have to name America. We only have to play with this, that this date [of the no-trust vote] was [decided] before,” he was heard saying in the audio clip.

Subsequently, Imran had stated that the document at the centre of the entire affair should now be leaked.

Contents of cipher come to the fore

Last year, US-based news organisation The Intercept had published what it claimed was the text of the diplomatic cipher which Imran cited as proof of a US conspiracy to remove his government previously.

The cipher allegedly contained an account of a meeting between US State Department official Lu and Pakistani envoy Asad.

As per the purported contents of the cable, the US objected to Imran’s foreign policy regarding the Ukraine war.

“Don[ald Lu] referred to Pakistan’s position on the Ukraine crisis and said that ‘people here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.’ He shared that in his discussions with the NSC, ‘it seems quite clear that this is the prime minister’s policy’,” said the excerpt published by The Intercept.

In response, Asad said that this was not a correct reading of the situation as Pakistan’s position on Ukraine was a result of intense interagency consultations.

“I asked Don[ald Lu] if the reason for a strong US reaction was Pakistan’s abstention in the voting in the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly]. He categorically replied in the negative and said that it was due to the prime minister’s visit to Moscow,” The Intercept quoted from the purported cable.

According to the text, Lu then said “I think if the no-confidence vote against the prime minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the prime minister. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.”

These words were ostensibly the threat that Imran had alluded to when he claimed there was a US conspiracy to overthrow his government.

Court proceedings begin

In August 2023, the Federal Investigation Agency registered a first information report (FIR) against Imran and Qureshi under the Official Secrets Act.

The FIR said Imran, Qureshi and their other associates were involved in communication of information contained in secret classified document (cipher telegram received from Parep Washington dated March 7, 2022 to Secretary Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to the unauthorised persons (i.e. public at large) by twisting facts to achieve their ulterior motives and personal gains in a manner prejudicial to the interests of state security.

The same month, it emerged that a special court was established to hear the cases filed under the Official Sec­rets Act in camera.

By October, both Imran — who was also facing other cases — and Qureshi were indicted in the case. The charge sheet read out by Special Court Judge Abual Hasnat Zulqarnain stated that Imran “illegally retained and wrongly communicated” the cipher.

In November, however, the Islamabad High Court had declared the proceedings in the case illegal, which meant that the entire process would have to start afresh.

The special court had then begun the cipher trial afresh and indicted both Imran and Qureshi for a second time in the case on December 13.

On Dec 22, the Supreme Court (SC) approved Imran and Qureshi’s post-arrest bail in the cipher case against surety bonds with Rs1 million each.

The order — issued by a three-member bench comprising Justice Sardar Tariq Masood, Justice Athar Minallah and Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah on a set of PTI petitions — stated that there was “no sufficient incriminating material available at this stage” which showed that Imran communicated the information in the cipher to the public at large or for the benefit of a foreign power. It said the disclosed information did not relate to any defence installations or affairs and Imran did not disclose “any secret official code” to the public.

At the same time, the court had also said that there were “sufficient grounds for further inquiry into their guilt of the said offence, which is to be finally decided by the learned trial court after the recording of the evidence of the parties”.

The PTI leaders were, however, unable to secure freedom. Imran remained incarcerated in the Toshakhana, Al-Qadir and other cases. On the other hand, Qureshi’s expected release was also stalled after he was manhandled and re-arrested in a fresh May 9 case.

On Dec 28, just a week after Special Court (Official Secrets Act) had begun the cipher trial afresh, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a stay order on the in-camera proceedings in the case till January 11 and noted that there were “legal errors” in the case.

The order was passed by IHC’s Justice Miangul Hasan Aurangzeb on Imran’s petition challenging the trial and subsequent developments, including the framing of charges and a gag order on the media.

The written order stated that the special court was proceeding with a daily trial despite the apex court order and directed that further hearings be stayed “in order to prevent these proceedings from becoming fait accompli”.

However, on Jan 11, the court withdrew its stay order on the case proceedings after the state counsel assured that the witnesses’ statements would be recorded afresh.

During the hearing, Attorney General for Pakistan Mansoor Usman Awan had told the court that the statements of 13 witnesses would be recorded afresh, while the FIA stated that those of 12 others were yet to be recorded. Subsequently, the IHC allowed the proceedings since December 14 to begin afresh.

Witnesses, counsels and conviction

Earlier this month, the special court summoned witnesses to record their statements in the case.

On Jan 18, statements of five witnesses including former principal secretary Azam Khan, Aneesur Rehman, Javed Iqbal, Hidayatullah and Mohammad Ashfaq were recorded.

In his testimony, Azam had 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 about it numerous times.

At a hearing a day later, Imran described Azam’s statement as “factual” and emphasised that the latter had spoken the truth despite being detained for 40 days. He also 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 Asad also recorded his statement in the case. When he 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.

During the hearing last week, the FIA prosecutor had asked the Special Court (Official Secrets Act) to close the defence counsel’s right to cross-examination, alleging that the defence side was applying delaying tactics to prolong the trial.

FIA special prosecutor Raja Rizwan Abbasi had informed Judge Zulqarnain that a witness had come from the UAE to attend the court proceedings, but the defence counsel did not bother to come to the court.

Sikandar Zulqarnain, the lead counsel for Imran Khan, was not in attendance during the hearing.

Subsequently, the judge appointed Abdul Rehman and Hazrat Younis as defence counsel for both PTI leaders in the next hearing as the lawyers representing Imran and Qureshi were not available for cross-examination of witnesses. The PTI founder had called the development a “joke” because the prosecution and defence teams both belonged to the government.

A day ago, Imran was reluctant to appear before the judge. However, Qureshi appeared in court. The prison authorities allowed only three court reporters to cover the proceedings of the cipher case.

During the 13-hour-long hearing, the special court concluded the cross-examination of all 25 prosecution witnesses in the cipher case.

The proceedings had begun with heated arguments from the PTI leaders’ counsel as they expressed a lack of confidence in Judge Zulqarnain. They filed an application asking the judge to recuse himself from his decision to appoint the state counsel for the two PTI leaders to cross-examine the witnesses.

However, the judge heard the arguments of the defence counsel and dismissed the petition.

Today, Judge Zulqarnain handed both Imran and Qureshi 10 years in jail in the cipher case — a verdict which came just nine days before the general elections.

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 announced a 10-year sentence for both Imran and Qureshi. After announcing the verdict, the judge stepped out of the courtroom, at which Qureshi protested that his statement was not recorded.

The PTI has now decided to challenge the verdict in the Islamabad High Court.

Header image: Prime Minister Imran Khan shows a letter, purportedly containing evidence of a foreign plot against the government, at a rally in Islamabad on March 27, 2022. — DawnNewsTV