Islamabad, Pakistan – Former Prime Minister Imran Khan received some rare good news on the legal front when the Islamabad High Court suspended his three-year prison sentence in a corruption case and ordered his release on bail.
But his joy was short-lived on Tuesday as a special court in Islamabad ordered him to remain in custody in a connection with the “cypher case” and instructed authorities to present him before the court on Wednesday.
The cypher case is related to a diplomatic document that allegedly went missing when it was in the former leader’s possession.
Khan, 70, was convicted on August 5 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.
Last year, a no-confidence vote in parliament removed him from office. Since then, Khan has repeatedly alleged that the cypher, or diplomatic cable, contains proof there was a United States-led conspiracy with Pakistan’s powerful military to oust him.
The US has repeatedly denied any such involvement, as has Pakistan’s military.
After his sentencing early this month, Pakistan’s Election Commission declared Khan ineligible to contest elections for at least five years. Despite Tuesday’s decision by a two-member bench of the Islamabad High Court, the disqualification still stands, according to some legal experts.
“It is important to remember that only the sentence has been suspended, not the actual conviction,” lawyer Mirza Moiz Baig told Al Jazeera following the court’s order.
“Given that the Pakistani Constitution bars a convict from contesting elections, Khan continues to remain disqualified from electoral politics,” Baig said, adding that he also remains ineligible to lead his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
The Federal Investigation Agency registered a case against Khan and his close aides for allegedly sharing information on the “cypher” cable and violating the recently established Official Secrets Act.
The purported document was published by The Intercept, which has said the source of the secret cable was a military official and not Khan’s PTI party.
Khan has said the document is no longer in his possession and he has no knowledge of its whereabouts.
Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, spokesman for the PTI, applauded the Islamabad High Court’s decision to suspend Khan’s sentence and said the party’s top priority is to bring its leader back home.
But after the special court order to keep the former prime minister in detention, Bukhari expressed his displeasure.
“It is absurd that the Official Secrets Act is being forced without any legal standing whatsoever. Are laws & draconian amendments in this country to target just one person/party? Or is there any use of law for the people?” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Ex Prime Minister #ImranKhan has been detained under a bill that was not legally approved as a law by the President.
It is absurd that the Official Secrets Act is being forced without any legal standing whatsoever.
Are laws & draconian amendments in this country to target just…
— Sayed Z Bukhari (@sayedzbukhari) August 29, 2023
Intazar Hussain Panjutha, a member of the PTI’s legal team representing Khan, also questioned Khan’s continued imprisonment and said “no plausible” reason could justify it.
“There is no evidence against him. This sentence should have been suspended right at the start of our appeal, and there was no need for wasting so much time as it was not the final decision,” he told Al Jazeera.
The lawyer was also critical of the order by the special court to keep Khan in detention.
“This is an illegal order and, most importantly, a very suspicious one as there is no date mentioned anywhere and it cannot be determined when this was passed. It must be in black and white and clearly reflect when this passed. We will challenge this as it is against the law,” Panjutha said.
The legality of the Official Secrets Act, under which the cypher case is being heard, was called into question this month when President Arif Alvi, himself a member of the PTI, declared he had never signed the amended laws.
The amendments, which give authorities more power to prosecute people for acts committed against the state and military, were presented to Alvi by the outgoing parliament. But the president on August 20 said he had never signed off on them.
According to Pakistan’s Constitution, if the president does not sign a draft bill or return it with his observations or objections within 10 days after it passes both houses of parliament, it becomes law.
Constitutional expert Reza Ali disputed the position taken by PTI officials and said the president’s statement on social media is not enough to keep the changes from going into effect and the party must go to court to appeal.
“Unless the notification issued by the government is challenged in a court of law, despite its defective nature, it remains in the field. The statement by the PTI is inaccurate,” Ali, a Lahore-based lawyer, said.
“Since the court did not set aside the amendments, it remains valid. Posting messages on Twitter does not invalidate it, and if the PTI believes so strongly, a petition should be filed in the court.”