Imran, Qureshi’s indictment in cipher case put off for a week

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Imran, Qureshi's indictment in cipher case put off for a week

RAWALPINDI: The indictment of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan and his party’s Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi in the cipher case was deferred Tuesday, as a special court — established under the Official Secrets Act — adjourned the hearing till next week.

The hearing of the case was held at the Adiala jail in Rawalpindi wherein the copies of challans submitted by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) against the PTI leaders were provided to the accused. 

Special court judge,  Abual Hasnat Zulqarnain, who conducted the hearing, scheduled the indictment for the next week as the accused lawyers had refused to receive the copies of the challan during the last hearing. 

The FIA special prosecutor, Shah Khawar, Khan, Qureshi and their legal teams were all present in the courtroom during the hearing.

During the last hearing on October 9, the court issued copies of challans (charge sheet) submitted by the FIA against the PTI leaders and shared them with the accused, while their date of indictment was fixed to take place on October 17 (today). 

“The accused had refused to receive a copy of the challan at the previous hearing,” the FIA special prosecutor said.

After the charges are framed, the evidence of the prosecution is recorded and the case trial begins. Subsequently, the testimonies and statements of the accused are recorded by the court.

Speaking with journalists outside the Adiala jail before the hearing, PTI chief’s focal person on legal affairs, Umair Niazi, said that the copies of the challans were not provided in the previous hearing. 

He also said that the prosecution’s Section 14 plea was not allowed by the court.

“The hearing in the jail should not be in-camera and the media should have access,” he said, adding that this will be discussed today.

It should be noted that the Islamabad High Court (IHC), a day earlier, reserved its ruling on petitions filed by the PTI chief seeking post-arrest bail and quashing of the cipher case registered against him.

On August 18, the ousted premier was booked under the Official Secrets Act 1923 in the cipher case after the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) invoked Section 5 of the said law. The diplomatic cable reportedly went missing from Imran’s possession. According to the former ruling party, the cable contained a threat from the US to topple the PTI’s government.

Imran is currently in Adiala jail on judicial remand in the cipher case. He was taken into custody after being sentenced to three years in prison in the Toshakhana case on August 5, 2023. Initially, he was kept in Attock jail but later he was moved to Adiala jail.

It is pertinent to mention here that the IHC on August 29 had suspended the sentence handed down to the PTI chairman in the Toshakhana case.

‘Indictment hearing on Monday’

FIA prosecutor Khawar told journalists that the indictment proceedings will take place next Monday (October 23).

“On October 23, the charges will be framed and the indictment will be filed. After the indictment, the regular trial of the cipher case will begin,” he said.

Meanwhile, Khan’s counsel, Sher Afzal Marwat, told journalists outside the Adiala Jail that the court said an indictment cannot be filed without providing copies of challan to the accused.

He also said the hearing of the case in jail will be challenged in the court again.

Marwat also talked about the issue of jail facilities. “PTI chairman is kept in a cage-like room and his rights are being violated.”

He lamented that attempts are being made to implicate Khan in the May 9 incidents.

FIA charge sheet

The FIA, in its challan, stated that the former prime minister and the vice-chairman were found guilty in the matter and requested the court to conduct their trial and sentence them in the case.

According to the sources, former PTI secretary-general Asad Umar’s name was not added to the list of accused. Meanwhile, Khan’s former principal secretary Azam Khan was also named as a “strong witness” in the case.

The FIA also attached Azam’s statements, recorded under Sections 161 and 164, along with the challan, said the sources, adding that the PTI chief kept the cipher to himself and misused the state secret.

The sources also said that Khan had a copy of the cipher but he did not return it.

Moreover, the FIA also attached the transcript of Khan and Qureshi’s speech on March 27 — the day when the former premier brandished a letter claiming it was a cipher from a foreign nation, that wanted his government to be removed from power.

The agency also submitted a list of 28 witnesses to the court with the challan after recording their statements under Section 161.

Sources further revealed that the names of former foreign secretaries Asad Majeed, Sohail Mehmood and the then additional foreign secretary Faisal Niaz Tirmizi have also been added to the list of witnesses.

In August of this year, the FIA booked the PTI chief and the party’s vice chairman under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly misplacing and misusing the classified document for their vested political interests.

“Consequent upon the conclusion of the enquiry No. 111/2023 dated 05.10.2022, registered in the CTW, FIA Islamabad, it transpired that former prime minister namely Imran Ahmad Khan Niazi, former foreign minister namely Shah Mahmood Qureshi and their other associates are involved in communications of information contained in the secret classified document (Cipher Telegram received from Parep. Washington dated 7th March, 2022 to Secretary Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to the unauthorised person (i.e. public at large) by twisting the facts to achieve their ulterior motives and personal gains in a manner prejudicial to the interests of state security,” read first information report (FIR) registered against the PTI leaders.

Subsequently, both leaders were arrested in connection with the investigation into the case and a special court was established under the Official Secrets Act to try the accused.

What is ciphergate?

The controversy first emerged on March 27, 2022, when Khan — less than a month before his ouster in April 2022 — while addressing a public rally waved a letter before the crowd, claiming that it was a cipher from a foreign nation that had conspired with his political rivals to have PTI government overthrown.

He did not reveal the contents of the letter nor did he mention the name of the nation it came from. But a few days later, he accused the United States of conspiring against him and alleged that Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs Donald Lu had sought his removal.

The cipher was about former Pakistan ambassador to the US Majeed’s meeting with Lu.

The former prime minister, claiming that he was reading contents from the cipher, said that “all will be forgiven for Pakistan if Imran Khan is removed from power”.

Then on March 31, the National Security Committee (NSC) took up the matter and decided to issue a “strong demarche” to the US for its “blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan”.

Later, after his removal, then-prime minister Shehbaz Sharif convened a meeting of the NSC, which came to the conclusion that it had found no evidence of a foreign conspiracy in the cable.

In the two audio leaks that took the internet by storm and shocked the public after these events, the former prime minister, then-federal minister Asad Umar, and then-principle secretary Azam could allegedly be heard discussing the US cipher and how to use it to their advantage.

On September 30, the federal cabinet took notice of the matter and constituted a committee to probe the contents of the audio leaks.

In October, the cabinet gave the green signal to initiate action against the former prime minister and handed over the case to the FIA.

Once FIA was given the task to probe the matter, it summoned Khan, Umar, and other leaders of the party, but the PTI chief challenged the summons and secured a stay order from the court.

The Lahore High Court (LHC), in July this year, recalled the stay order against the call-up notice to Khan by the FIA.