What Is The Cipher Case That Has Led To 10 Years In Jail For Ex-Pak PM Imran Khan

Imran Khan has consistently referred to the classified cable and its contents—The Cipher—claiming that the US orchestrated the no-confidence vote against him.

AP Photo
Imran Khan AP Photo

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and ex-Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi have been sentenced to 10 years in jail in connection with the cipher case, where they were accused of leaking state secrets. The verdict drew swift criticism from Khan’s followers.

This case involves the alleged leaking of secret diplomatic correspondence sent to Islamabad by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington in early 2022, when Khan was prime minister. Both Khan and Shah Mahmood were found guilty of making the confidential document public.

This ruling adds to the challenges for Khan, a former cricket star turned politician who was previously ousted in a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April 2022. 

Currently serving a three-year prison sentence in a graft case, Khan's legal troubles are escalating. The timing is important as it comes before the February 8 parliamentary elections in Pakistan, and Imran Khan is disqualified from participating due to a prior criminal conviction.

Despite not being on the ballot, Khan remains a potent political force due to his widespread grassroots following and anti-establishment rhetoric.

What is the cypher case and what was inside the document? We explain.

What Is The Cipher Case?

Former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan publicly discussed a secret document on March 27, 2022, during a large gathering in Islamabad. He presented a 'letter' from his pocket, alleging it as evidence of an international conspiracy to remove him from the PM post.

In April of the same year, Imran Khan was ousted from power after losing a no-confidence vote in his leadership. The vote occurred past midnight following a motion brought by opposition parties, concluding days of political drama.

Since then, Imran Khan has consistently referred to the classified cable and its contents—The Cipher—claiming that the U.S. orchestrated the no-confidence vote against him. Both Washington and Pakistani officials have denied these allegations.

In response, in July 2023, the Pakistan Muslim League (N)-led government accused the former PM of "exposing an official secret document".

The ongoing prosecution alleges that the former PM's actions amounted to leaking a classified document and causing damage to diplomatic relations. The latter charge carries the potential for life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

What Is The Cipher Document?

The cipher document, though undisclosed by either the government or Khan’s lawyers, purportedly contains diplomatic correspondence between the Pakistani ambassador to Washington and the ministry of foreign affairs in Islamabad.

In August 2023, American news organisation The Intercept published a section of the document, stating that it received the document from a source within Pakistan’s military.

According to the classified Pakistani government document obtained by The Intercept, the U.S. State Department, in a March 7, 2022, meeting, encouraged the Pakistani government to remove Imran Khan as prime minister over his neutral stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The document, labelled “Secret,” details a meeting between State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Asad Majeed Khan, then Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. 

The diplomatic meeting occurred two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, coinciding with Khan's visit to Moscow, which infuriated Washington. 

In the meeting, the US officials expressed their displeasure regarding Imran’s neutrality on the Russian invasion of Ukraine — the then PM was in Moscow on February 24, 2022, when President Valmadir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine, according to The Intercept report.

Donald Lu went on to say:

 “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.”

More than a month later,  Imran Khan was ousted from office after the vote succeeded.