Pakistan: Cipher Saga – OpEd


In a case marked by prolonged hearings and accusations of delaying tactics, the Special Court reached a verdict on Tuesday, sentencing former Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to ten years of rigorous imprisonment. The basis for this significant sentence lies in the proven violation of the Official Secrets Act 1923.

Unsurprisingly, Imran Khan’s lawyer, Barrister Ali Zafar, denounced the trial as a fraud against the justice system, claiming that it was not a fair proceeding. Zafar asserted that the appointed lawyers for Khan and Qureshi were sidelined without permission, replaced by state lawyers. However, the authenticity of these claims has been questioned, as legal experts argue that the court adhered to legal requirements, offering both accused individuals the chance to defend themselves through their chosen lawyers. Additionally, the defense counsel of Imran Khan and Qureshi has been deliberately using delaying tactics to manipulate court proceedings. 

Despite calls from the court, Imran Khan and Qureshi’s lawyers failed to appear, engaging in inappropriate behavior towards the judge during the proceedings. The aftermath of the verdict witnessed social media backlash against the judge, fueled by Ali Zafar’s comments. Legal and constitutional experts hold mixed views on the case, but the convicts have avenues for appeal, leaving the final outcome uncertain.

To understand the context, it’s essential to delve into the Official Secrets Act’s purpose and rationale. The act aims to safeguard classified information, emphasizing national security. Individuals with access to official secrets are obliged to maintain strict confidentiality, refraining from unauthorized disclosures. Such legislation serves as a deterrent against espionage and threats to national interests, with similar laws existing globally. Without any doubt, it has been substantiated by the prosecutors that both Imran Khan and Qureshi have undermined state security and its foreign relations particularly with the United States. 

Likewise, ciphers, classified communications sent by ambassadors to their governments, contain assessments of the host country’s disposition on bilateral issues. Imran Khan faced charges of making such classified information public but also exploiting it to advance his political agenda. The accusations assert that he failed to return the cipher copy to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, claiming it was lost. Shah Mahmood Qureshi was implicated as an accomplice. Key witnesses from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs including former foreign secretary Sohail Mehmood and former Principal Secretary of Imran Khan Azam Khan provided testimony that supported the charges against Imran Khan. The court heard that the copy of the cipher was not returned, and Imran Khan’s public revelations about a conspiracy strained relations with the US. The author of the cipher, former Ambassador to the US Asad Majeed, unequivocally stated that there was no mention of any conspiracy or threat in the message. Witnesses contradicted Imran Khan’s claims, and the contents were published in a US publication, leading to a straightforward case. Both Khan and Qureshi were found guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act.

Since his ouster from power through legitimate vote of no confidence, Imran Khan continues to paddle anti-state narrative by instigating his party workers. Imran Khan’s use of the cipher to propagate a false narrative of conspiracy, leading to chaos and violence, was a focal point. On the fateful day of May 9, PTI supporters at the behest of their leaders launched attacks against state institutions and vandalized public properties. The incidents of May 9th were seen as a consequence of this false narrative. Leaders or public figures resorting to such acts that undermine democracy, peace, and national security are justifiably subject to political and legal consequences.

Historical examples, such as the resignation of US President Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, highlight the accountability of rulers for indiscretions. The court’s verdict is significant in emphasizing that no one, regardless of status, is above the law. Imran Khan and his spouse also face 14 years of imprisonment each in the Toasha Khan corruption case, with additional cases related to the May 9th incidents.

The fate met by Imran Khan is perceived by some as a divine retribution for his wrongdoings, marking a significant shift from hero to zero and a fall from grace. The court’s decision underscores the principle that individuals, even former leaders, are answerable to the law for actions that jeopardize national security and diplomatic relations.

The court’s decision holds great importance, emphasizing that no individual should be permitted to endanger national security and diplomatic ties with other nations. It reaffirmed the principle that every person, regardless of their status, is subject to the law. In the Toasha Khan corruption case, both Imran Khan and his spouse received a 14-year prison sentence each. Additionally, Imran Khan is yet to address legal matters related to the events on 9th May.

Asad Ali

Asad Ali is an Islamabad based expert of South Asian Affairs

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