Cipher case verdict: Legal and political experts criticise ‘speed, transparency’ of verdict

Lawyer Mirza Moiz Baig says verdict puts the trial court's impartiality in question, while journalist Baqir Sajjad Syed sees it as a "blow to democracy".
Published January 30, 2024

After a special court handed former prime minister Imran Khan and ex-foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi 10-year jail sentences each in connection with a case involving the disclosure of state secrets, legal experts and political analysts unanimously criticised the verdict, questioning its merit as well as the haste with which the trial was concluded.

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 conviction, which came after Special Court (Official Secrets Act) judge Abual Hasnat Moham­mad Zulqarnain appointed a state counsel for Imran and Qureshi — a move they vehemently opposed — means that both stand disqualified from contesting elections for the next five years, including the one that is a little over a week away.

Here is what legal eagles and political experts reached out to had to say about the verdict:

Highly unfortunate and overly rushed decision: Rida Hosain

Lawyer Rida Hosain said that the right to a fair trial “is enshrined in the Constitution as an independent and absolute right”.

“The superior courts have gone so far as to say that if an accused cannot be tried fairly, they should not be tried at all,” she said. “The right to be represented by a counsel of one’s choice is a fundamental aspect of a fair trial. There was no justification for depriving Imran Khan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi of this crucial right. The farcical manner in which the trial was carried out has compromised the entire process.

“As regards the merits, a sentence of ten years can only be imposed if it is shown that an accused has acted in the interest or benefit of a foreign power, or the offence relates to the defence of Pakistan, or the offence is in relation to any secret official code.”

She recalled that when the Supreme Court had approved Imran and Qureshi’s post-arrest bails in December, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah had stated that there was no “sufficient incriminating material available’ at that stage that showed that Imran Khan acted in the interest or benefit of a foreign power, or disclosed information relating to the defence installations, or disclosed any secret official code”.

“The SC bail order is a tentative view but shows that not all offences under the Official Secrets Act attract such harsh punishments. It is a highly unfortunate and overly rushed decision, and it is hoped that it will be overturned in appeal.”

Transparency, speed of trial leaves judiciary with little credibility: Basil Nabi Malik

Lawyer Basil Nabi Malik also criticised the manner as well as the speed with which the trial was wrapped, saying, “There are times when legal decisions assume a political flavour, 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.

“Appointing state counsels to defend those being prosecuted at a time when the state itself is being accused of victimizing Imran Khan and Mr. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, controversies regarding the manner, mode, and level of transparency in the trial, jail or otherwise, and the speed with which the decision has been announced, leave the judiciary with little credibility.

“Providing the other side with a proper opportunity to be heard is a cardinal principle in our legal system, and when the accused may seem reluctant to proceed, it becomes even more important to ensure that justice has not only been done but is seen to be done.

“In the matter of this decision, how many can say that either of the two principles have been fulfilled?

Punishment for playing politics at over foreign relations should’ve been through electorate: Abdul Moiz Jaferii

Another lawyer Abdul Moiz Jaferii also questioned why the case proceedings were wrapped up in a haste, but also wondered on what basis the 10-year sentence was handed.

“This ten-year sentence implies that the trial court saw it fit to try Imran khan under s3 of the act which requires intent of espionage and the knowledge of such detriment to the state through collusion with an enemy. It would be amazing to see how this could be proven,” he said.

“The lesser s5 punishments for negligent handling of such missives or the retention of them as added to the law in August 2023 can also not apply in my opinion, as they would still require a negligently handled missive to contain a code or secret language capable of being interpreted and decoded. It is admitted that Imran khan was handling a deciphered version of the communication.

“This was a prime minister playing politics at the expense of diplomatic relations. The punishment for this can only be from the electorate, not through the abuse of laws that clearly do not apply to the circumstances.”

Integrity and impartiality of the court under question: Mirza Moiz Baig

Lawyer Mirza Moiz Baig said that the verdict will be remembered for the “extraneous reasons” the trial was conducted in, and raises concerns about the “integrity and impartiality” of the court.

“While it may be premature to comment on the merits of the judgment rendered today, the mystery that shrouded the trial and the haste with which the trial proceeded raise concerns about the integrity and impartiality of the trial court,” he 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.

“The judgment rendered today would thus be remembered less for the hyper-technical reasons it proffers but for the extraneous reasons that the trial was really about.”

Twitter has been abuzz with discussions following the news, with many sharing their disappointment with the court’s verdict, underscoring the problem of a weakened democracy.

Senior journalist Baqir Sajjad Syed deemed the verdict “disappointing”, adding that “using the guise of a leaked cable to silence dissent is a blow to democracy.”

Talk show host Shahzeb Khanzada was of the view that the judgment was announced “without following due process” and that the hearing was “conducted in haste”.

In a post on X, Khanzada said that even though there was strong evidence against Imran and Qureshi, relief from the high court would be “imminent”, keeping in view the way the trial was conducted.

Header image: The file photo shows former prime minister Imran Khan speaking to media representatives in Lahore. — AFP