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Imran Khan and Shah Mehmood Qureshi Receive 10-Year Jail Terms in Cipher Case, Ahead of Pakistan Elections

A Pakistan court handed down 10-year jail sentences to former Prime Minister Imran Khan and former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in the controversial cipher case on Tuesday. The judgment comes just months before Pakistan is scheduled to hold general elections.

Background of the Cipher Case

The cipher case relates to a diplomatic cable that Imran Khan alleges contained evidence of a foreign conspiracy to oust him from power in 2022.

He claims the cipher contained threats from the United States to remove him as prime minister through a no-confidence vote, which eventually transpired in April 2022.

However, the Pakistan government maintains he never returned the diplomatic cable, which should have remained classified.

The case centers on whether he unlawfully retained and politicized the cipher for political gain, a charge his party denies.

10-Year Sentences for Imran Khan and Qureshi

On Tuesday, a special court in Islamabad convicted both Imran Khan and Qureshi under the Official Secrets Act and sentenced them to 10 years in prison each.

The Act criminalizes the possession and distribution of classified government documents. As former holders of high office, Imran Khan and Qureshi were legally bound to return the cipher when their tenure ended.

Imran Khan and Qureshi were previously indicted in the case in October 2022 but pleaded not guilty at the time.

Since then, the trial proceedings faced several procedural delays. Both leaders participated in Tuesday’s hearing from jail, where they have been imprisoned since October on separate charges.

Imran Khan Decries Conviction as Politically Motivated

Imran Khan swiftly decried the court’s ruling as politically motivated and a “joke.” He claims the trial was engineered by the current coalition government to discredit him ahead of elections.

In a statement, Imran Khan’s PTI party said he was being persecuted for “defending Pakistan and standing for Haqeeqi Azadi.” They vowed the convictions would be overturned on appeal.

Political analysts observe the timing of the sentences seems intended to weaken Imran Khan and the PTI party before national polls. However, it may conversely galvanize their base and generate sympathy among Imran Khan’s legions of followers.

Elections Expected Later This Year

Pakistan is constitutionally required to hold general elections by October 2023. However, the ruling coalition has indicated polls may occur within the next few months.

He has been actively campaigning and holding rallies before his latest imprisonment. Most surveys point to his PTI party as the favorite to return to power.

But the cipher case verdicts cast uncertainty on whether Imran Khan can stand for office if his conviction remains in place by the election. Pakistan’s Constitution bars candidates from running if they have been convicted and sentenced to prison for two or more years.

The PTI insists Imran Khan will be prime minister again regardless of legal obstacles. But the cipher case could potentially thwart his ambitions if the conviction holds.

What’s Next for the Cipher Case?

Imran Khan’s lawyer says he will challenge the conviction before the Islamabad High Court.

Given the sensitivity of the matter, the case is likely to be fast-tracked. But Pakistan’s judicial system moves notoriously slowly.

Legal experts say if Imran Khan appeals, the Islamabad High Court has the power to suspend his sentence and overturn the conviction.

However, if his 10-year term is upheld on appeal, Imran Khan could face disqualification from holding public office.

That would upend the political calculus before elections and require the PTI to find a new leader in a compressed timeframe.

Broader Implications of the Verdict

The cipher case verdict represents another tumultuous turn in Pakistan’s chaotic political journey since Imran Khan’s ouster.

Analysts say the judgment showcases the judiciary’s continuing entanglement in partisan power struggles, despite nominally being independent.

It also demonstrates Pakistan’s endemic instability, with leaders from opposing parties taking turns being hounded through the courts in the name of accountability.

Finally, it highlights the still-powerful role of the military establishment behind the scenes in orchestrating political developments.

With Pakistan facing pressing economic woes and critical foreign policy choices, the cipher conviction only serves to distract from substantive issues facing the country before elections.

The coming months will determine whether Imran Khan can resurrect his political fortunes and overcome this latest legal setback on the way back to power. But the former cricket star has made a career of defying the odds. Few will rule him out no matter the scale of the obstacles arrayed before him.

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