Pakistan’s Ex-Leader Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison in Cipher Case Ahead of National Elections

Courts imprison a former national leader and well-known celebrity for leaking state secrets days before an election in a case his supporters dismiss as politically motivated. Sound familiar? Welcome to Pakistan in 2024.


Courts imprison a former national leader and well-known celebrity for leaking state secrets days before an election in a case his supporters dismiss as politically motivated. Sound familiar? Welcome to Pakistan in 2024.

  • Courts sentenced Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister, to 10 years in prison on Tuesday just one week before the first Pakistani general election since Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote in April 2022.
  • Khan’s 10-year sentence is for leaking state secrets in a controversy known as the “Cipher case.” Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the former foreign minister, was also sentenced to a decade in prison in the same case.
  • Khan was convicted of waving a classified document at a political rally. The document was reportedly a secret cable from the Pakistani ambassador to the US to the government in Islamabad that Khan claims is proof the US conspired with the military to oust him.
  • This new conviction comes days before the Feb. 8 general elections, which are being held amid an ongoing government crackdown on Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Party. Many PTI leaders have been arrested, imprisoned, or have fled into exile.
  • Khan is already serving a three-year sentence and has 150 other cases pending against him. Khan’s supporters say the charges are being brought by the military – essentially Pakistan’s deep state – to keep the popular ex-cricket star off the ballot. Khan maintains his innocence.
  • After beginning his term in 2018 as an ally of the military establishment, Khan now claims the military and intelligence services are trying to destroy him and his political movement after he had a falling-out with the head of the army in 2022.
  • Imran Khan is one of Pakistan’s most popular politicians after leading Pakistan to victory at the 1992 cricket World Cup. His arrest in May 2023 kicked off deadly riots throughout the South Asian nation. 
  • “”It was apparent that the state was using the cipher case to sideline Khan completely. Khan’s (predictable) sentence is part of the (military) establishment’s usual playbook before elections,” Brookings scholar Madiha Afzal told Reuters.
  • Afzal added, “”The irregularities of the trial have now cast an even greater shadow on polls that had already lost their credibility given the extent of pre-poll manipulation that’s taken place.”
  • Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is now favored to win the general election after he returned from exile last fall. Sharif was previously a foe of the military and was jailed on corruption charges ahead of the 2018 elections that brought Khan to power.


reporting from the left side of the aisle


  • As BBC News’ Simon Fraser and Caroline Davies observed, “Now the tables have turned. Nawaz Sharif’s court cases have melted away, leading many to believe he is currently preferred by the establishment, while his rival – who used to be seen as close to the military – has fallen out of favor.”
  • “Analysts have called the election among the least credible in Pakistan’s 76-year history because of the military’s widespread crackdown on Mr. Khan and his supporters,” the New York Times noted. “In May, hundreds of protesters attacked military installations in scenes that were once unimaginable in Pakistan. In response, the military launched a widespread intimidation campaign aimed at weakening Mr. Khan’s political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I.”
  • “The legal proceedings were highly unusual, held not in a courtroom but in the prison in Rawalpindi where Khan was being detained. They were conducted behind closed doors, which Khan’s lawyers protested was unconstitutional,” the Guardian reported. “Khan described the trial as ‘a joke’ and a sham, as both the prosecution and defense teams were government-appointed lawyers and Khan’s lawyers were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses.”



  • “As opposition leader he waged an unprecedented campaign of defiance against the top brass, accusing them of ousting him in a US-backed conspiracy and of plotting an assassination attempt which wounded him,” Breitbart observed. “Khan was briefly arrested last May, and Islamabad used the resulting unrest to justify a sweeping crackdown on PTI which has seen many senior leaders defect or go underground.”
  • “Although Khan is not on the ballot, as his criminal conviction bars him from running, he maintains tremendous sway over the country’s current political landscape and remains a potent political force because of his grassroots following and anti-establishment rhetoric,” Fox News noted.
  • “While his jail term was suspended as he challenged the corruption conviction, it had already ruled him out of the country’s general elections next week,” the New York Post noted. “Despite being ruled out of the election, Khan’s legal team was hoping to get him released from jail, where he has been since August last year away from the public eye. The latest conviction means that is unlikely even as the charges are contested in a higher court.”

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© Dominic Moore, 2023