PTI chief Imran Khan said on Monday that after the surfacing of audio leaks allegedly featuring conversations between key figures in the coalition government, Chief election commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja should resign from his post.
Addressing a gathering at Government College University (GCU) in Lahore, Imran said the audio leaks had made it apparent that CEC Raja was a "servant of the Sharif household".
In the audio leaks, "Nawaz is telling him [CEC] who should be disqualified and when to hold elections," the former premier said.
After the audio leaks, the CEC should resign if he has even an ounce of shame, he said. "But he doesn't [have any shame], so we will have to make him resign."
Audio recordings of purported conversations between key government figures — including Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz and some members of the federal cabinet — discussing governance matters privately surfaced over the weekend, prompting concerns over the security of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).
PML-N leader Talal Chaudhry on Sunday had said the government was taking the leaks "very seriously", however, he stopped short of denying the veracity of the audios.
The content of the recordings, which appear to be informal conversations in the PM Office — as opposed to recorded phone conversations — has not been denied or disputed by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, who instead insisted that these only showed that “nothing illegal had happened”.
In his speech, Imran also alleged that the CEC had blocked the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) on the instructions of PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif and PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari.
"I kept on trying to introduce EVMs for three years [...] But this man, on the instructions of Nawaz and Zardari, who rely on false votes, did not allow EVMs," he claimed.
Turning his guns on Maryam, the PTI chief referred to one of the audio recordings purportedly featuring a conversation between PM Shehbaz and an unidentified official about the possibility of facilitating the import of Indian machinery for a power project that was linked to the PML-N vice president's son-in-law.
Lambasting the PML-N, particularly PM Shehbaz, Imran said that his government had ended trade ties with India after New Delhi had revoked occupied Kashmir's special autonomy in August 2019.
"There are still no ties, but Maryam's son-in-law [intends] to procure machinery from India," Imran continued, adding: "And what is prime minister cherry blossom's response? He suggests that they bring the machinery via another country instead of telling them not to import it at all."
He further claimed that PM Shehbaz had also assured Maryam's son-in-law that he would not face any obstacles in constructing a grid station worth Rs700 million at one of his housing societies.
He was told that the grid station would be "financed by money from the Pakistani taxpayers", the PTI chief claimed.
He continued that in the coming days, there would be more "episodes" in audio leaks saga.
"I am hearing that a [recording] will surface where Maryam will tell abba jee [Nawaz] that the election commission has said they will disqualify Imran Khan in the Toshakhana case and that there is no need to worry," he said.
"This is the [state of the] election commission."
Responding to Imran's comments, Maryam said that strict action should be taken against the GCU vice chancellor for "desecrating an educational institution by lending it to a fitna and organising his jalsa on the premises".
"Using a seat of learning for political hate-mongering is a crime that should not go unpunished," she said.
Fawad calls for thorough investigation
Earlier today, PTI's Fawad Chaudhry had termed the slew of audio recordings a “major security lapse” and demanded a “thorough investigation” to expose those responsible.
Addressing a press conference in Islamabad today, PTI's Chaudhry lamented that phone tapping had "unfortunately become a common occurrence in Pakistan". He said the current leaks had caused a "national security crisis" in the country.
This shows that the PMO is quite weak in terms of cybersecurity and anything can be leaked from there, he stated.
The ex-minister claimed that the hacker who was in possession of the alleged recordings was saying he had more important audios which had not yet surfaced.
Chaudhry quoted BOL TV as reporting that the government was now "holding talks with the hacker to block the release of more recordings".
The PTI leader also played the recordings during his presser as he castigated PM Shehbaz and the PML-N for "not being able to run the government" effectively.
"We are going to place these audios before the Supreme Court of Pakistan," he said, demanding an independent probe.
He also sought the government's official statement on the matter.
Chaudhry also demanded action against the prime minister for allegedly facilitating the procurement of machinery from India on Maryam's insistence, as revealed in one of the audio recordings.
"A new National Accountability Bureau (NAB) reference must be filed against the prime minister for the alleged misuse of authority. I also ask the National Assembly speaker to summon the premier and other MNAs before the privilege committee to answer about it," he said.
Later in a tweet, he also demanded the CEC's resignation.
Leaks reveal massive security breach at PMO
What began as an alleged and potentially embarrassing audio leak seems to have turned into an all-out national security incident as a slew of audio recordings of conversations between key government figures were released over the weekend.
Sources in PM House told Dawn the issue was “quite serious” and it was being investigated by the relevant quarters on the directives of PM Shehbaz, who was in London when the leaks were first reported.
When asked whether the leaks featured in any conversations in London, a senior PML-N leader privy to the talks said that PM Shehbaz would handle the issue upon his return to Pakistan.
On Saturday, a recording of PM Shehbaz surfaced where he was discussing with an unidentified official the possibility of facilitating the import of Indian machinery for a power project that was a concern of Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, Raheel.
On Sunday, further recordings surfaced, which were shared on social media by several PTI leaders, concerning Finance Minister Miftah Ismail and the resignations of PTI lawmakers from the National Assembly.
One clip purportedly features a conversation between PML-N Vice President Maryam and the premier about Ismail, wherein a voice thought to belong to the former says the erstwhile finance minister “doesn’t know what he is doing” and wishes for the return of PML-N stalwart Ishaq Dar.
A second clip allegedly concerns a conversation between the prime minister, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Ayaz Sadiq about the resignations of PTI lawmakers from the National Assembly.
A third clip purportedly features a conversation between Maryam Nawaz and PM Shehbaz regarding the return of former army chief retired Gen Pervez Musharraf.
The possibility that this may be the result of a cyberattack was mentioned by Fawad on Sunday, who tweeted: “In a major cyber attack on PM Office 100 hours of conversations of PM and cabinet members have been leaked to an international hacker website".
“The hacker has asked for $345,000 for detailed record, that is about 8 GB. The conversations include political, economic and security related issues.”
Fawad's claim of a hacker making off with the data seems to originate from reports that a hacker or a collective — that has been involved in previous cyberattacks on behalf of neighbouring India — listed for sale a data dump containing conversations from the Pakistani PM Office.
Users claimed that the clips leaked online were shared by the alleged hacker(s) as proof that they were indeed in the possession of sensitive data and set a minimum bid of around 18 0BTC, or Etherscan tokens, worth around $345,000.
Some users also suggested that the purported hacker(s) — who originally posted sometime in August — claimed to have more records, including conversations of both the current and former prime ministers, i.e. Shehbaz Sharif and Imran Khan. However, Dawn has been unable to independently verify these claims.
Some IT experts Dawn spoke to said the issue was “quite serious” and blamed the lack of an effective strategy to counter cyberattacks of this scale.
When contacted, a senior military official in the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) also held the Intelligence Bureau (IB) responsible for the leak and said the military and its spy agencies have nothing to do with that department.
“The entire PM Office is looked after by the IB in terms of security,” the official said.
Information Technology expert Shahzad Ahmed told Dawn that it was difficult to say anything with authority on when and how the conversations were hacked, unless a thorough investigation was conducted.
However, he blamed the lack of government policy and interest in thwarting cyberattacks on important state institutions as one of the causes of the breach. He hoped that the incident would prove to be a wake-up call for the government, and it won’t simply be forgotten or brushed under the carpet.