ISLAMABAD: When the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) registered a case against former prime minister Imran Khan for withholding the copy of a diplomatic cipher, seven other state offices had not returned their copies to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), court records show.

The confidential diplomatic cable, at the heart of the cipher trial against Mr Khan, was sent to nine top offices, and only the Presidency had returned the copy by the time a case was registered against the ex-PM and former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on Aug 15, 2023.

This is the gist of a reply submitted by MoFA on September 27, 2023, to an FIA letter about the status of the cipher’s copies sent to various offices.

The revelation poses a daunting task for the FIA — the prosecuting agency in the cipher trial — as it will have to justify why only the former PM and foreign minister were singled out for prosecution, when other state offices had yet to return their copies of the confidential document.

Case against ex-PM, FM filed on Aug 15, 2023; documents show most other offices returned their copies in late September of that year

Most of the recipients held on to their copies for well over a year and only returned them once proce­edings against the ex-PM and his foreign minister were formally underway.

The only exceptions among the eight recipients were the president, who returned the document by June 15, 2023, and foreign secretary, who incidentally returned his copy on the same date as the case against Mr Khan and Mr Qureshi was filed, i.e. Aug 15, 2023.

Eight out of nine copies ‘not returned’

The MoFA reply, seen by Dawn, showed that between March 8 and April 27, 2022, copies of the cipher were sent to the PM’s secretary, president, chief of army staff, Inter-Services Intelligence chief, and Senate chairman. Two copies each were also sent to the cabinet secretary and chief justice of Pakistan.

Three copies — DG ISI’s, Senate chairman’s and the cabinet secretary’s second copy — were returned to MoFA on Sept 26, 2023, only a day before FIA sought the record.

Interestingly, the FIA submitted its query on Sept 27, and MoFA replied the same day. As per the reply, the copies of the cipher sent to the cabinet secretary, chief justice and army chief were also returned the same day.

The only copy marked “not returned” in MoFA’s list was the one sent to the prime minister’s secretary on March 8, 2022. The FIR, registered by the FIA’s Counter Terr­orism Wing in Islamabad, charged Mr Khan and Mr Qureshi under sections 5 and 9 of the Official Secrets Act, 1923 and Section 34 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).

They were accused of twisting and disclosing facts mentioned in the cipher for personal gains “in a manner prejudicial” to the state’s security.

The FIR also alleged that Mr Khan retained the confidential diplomatic cable, which had “compromised” the cipher encryption system used by Pak­istan’s missions abroad.

According to the FIR, the inquiry was completed on October 5, 2022. How­ever, Mr Khan’s counsel, Barrister Salman Safdar, in a hearing on March 19, pointed out that a formal complaint was filed on Oct 12, 2022.

In another hearing, Barrister Safdar argued that the copy sent to the then COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa was also returned “after a very long time”.

Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2024

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