What is the cypher case that led to jail term for Pakistan’s Imran Khan?

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Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and senior leader of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party Shah Mahmood Qureshi have been jailed for 10 years in a case where they were charged with leaking state secrets.

The sentencing in what is called as the cypher case comes less than two weeks before the general elections. Khan, who is already serving a three-year jail term in a corruption case, has been barred from standing in the elections on February 8.

A spokesperson for Khan’s PTI party said the two leaders were charged under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act in a closed-door trial, adding the ruling would be “challenged”.


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Here is what we know about the case:

What is the cypher case?

Khan is charged with making public a classified cable – a cypher or cipher – sent to Islamabad by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington in 2022. Khan and Qureshi were indicted by a Pakistani court on October 23, 2023.

Immediately after his removal as prime minister in April 2022, Khan said that the United States had a hand in his removal. Washington and the Pakistani military have denied his accusations. Khan later toned down his rhetoric against the US.

But a US-based news outlet, The Intercept, in August 2023 published what it claimed to be a “cypher” that hinted the US administration wanted to remove Khan from power. Khan maintains his ouster in April 2022 was orchestrated by the country’s powerful military and his political opponents.

The Intercept published purported details of a conversation between Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Asad Majeed Khan, and Donald Lu, the assistant secretary of state for the US Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, on March 7, 2022.

The conversation took place under two weeks after Khan visited Moscow, on the day Russia invaded Ukraine. In the exchange, Lu raised concerns about Khan’s visit to Russia and Pakistan’s neutral stance on the Ukraine war.

“I think if a no-confidence vote against the prime minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington,” Lu allegedly told Asad Majeed Khan, who sent the details of the conversation to Islamabad through a secret diplomatic cable.

Imran Khan has denied the charge and has said the contents appeared in the media from other sources.

Does Khan have the right to appeal?

Authorities say Khan and Qureshi have the right to appeal Tuesday’s ruling in the case.

The PTI said it would challenge it. “We don’t accept this illegal decision,” Khan’s lawyer, Naeem Panjutha, posted on social media platform X.

Khan aide Zulfikar Bukhari told Reuters that the legal team was given no chance to represent him or cross-examine witnesses, adding that the proceedings were carried out in jail.

Khan’s legal team was hoping to get him released from jail, where he has been since August last year, but the latest conviction means that is unlikely even as the charges are contested in a higher court.

What are other charges against Khan?

The cypher case is one of more than 150 cases pending against Khan, a former cricket star. Other charges range from contempt of court to “terrorism” and inciting violence.

Khan, 71, was convicted in August 2023 by a trial court for not declaring the assets he made from selling gifts he received from foreign governments and leaders during his premiership from 2018 to 2022. This was called the Toshakhana case.

The sentence was later suspended, but Khan remains behind bars in connection with other cases. He has said that he legally purchased the items. Government officials have alleged Khan’s aides sold the gifts in Dubai.

Khan was previously arrested for four days in May 2023 on charges that he and his wife received land as a bribe through the Al-Qadir Trust – a charitable trust set up by Khan’s third wife Bushra Bibi and himself in 2018, while he still held office.

Pakistani authorities have accused Khan and his wife of receiving the land, worth up to 7 billion rupees ($25m), from a property developer.

Khan’s aides have previously said that the land was donated to the trust for charitable purposes. The real estate developer has also denied any wrongdoing.

Will Khan be on the ballot for the February election?

The Toshakhana case led to a decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that disqualified Khan from holding public office for five years.

Additionally, the ECP also barred his party, PTI, from using its electoral symbol on the ballot.

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