Army, ISI in unprecedented presser question Arshad Sharif's exit from Pakistan, point to PTI's involvement
In an explosive and unexpected press conference, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmed Anjum joined Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) DG Lt Gen Babar Iftikhar to speak about journalist Arshad Sharif's killing and former premier Imran Khan's confrontational narrative against the military, as well as a host of other related topics.
This is the first time in Pakistan's history that the head of the country's spy agency has directly addressed the media.
At the outset of the press conference, Gen Iftikhar said the purpose of today's media talk was to shed light on the killing of journalist Arshad Sharif in Kenya and the circumstances surrounding it.
This press conference is being held in the context of presenting facts so that "facts, fiction and opinion can be differentiated", he said, adding that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had been "specially informed" about the sensitivity of the press conference.
Key points from joint presser
- March 27 narrative built through a piece of paper 'far from reality'
- Arshad Sharif was fed propaganda on cypher by Imran Khan
- Facts behind the cypher and Sharif's death have to be determined
- ARY News played the role of a spin doctor in targeting the army; CEO Salman Iqbal should be brought back to Pakistan
- KP govt in August issued a letter stating TTP splinter group was looking to target Sharif
- No one forced Arshad Sharif to leave Dubai
- Sharif did not face any threat in Pakistan
- COAS presented 'lucrative offer" for extension in March
Besides, it is necessary to determine the factors due to which a particular narrative is being built and people are being misled, he said.
"Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa was also targeted and faced criticism. An attempt was made to create a divide in society."
He said that Sharif's death was an "unfortunate incident" and called him an "icon of journalism in Pakistan". He noted that members of the late journalist's family had served in the army, adding that he always felt the pain of martyred officers.
Gen Iftikhar went on to say that Sharif's popularity was based on being an investigative journalist and when the cypher — which PTI chief Imran Khan has touted as evidence of a foreign conspiracy to oust his government — surfaced, he conducted several programmes on the issue.
He held several meetings with the former premier and interviewed him, the DG ISPR said. "As a result, it was stated that he was shown meeting minutes and the cypher."
The facts behind the cypher and Sharif's death have to be determined, he said.
Talking about the cypher, Gen Iftikhar said that the army chief had discussed it with Imran on March 11 when the latter had termed it to be "not a big thing".
"It was surprising for us when on March 27 a piece of paper was waved and an attempt was made to build a narrative that was far from reality."
He said that several facts had come to light regarding the cypher revealing the "baseless and unfounded" narrative surrounding it. The ISPR informed the National Security Committee that no proof was found regarding the conspiracy against the PTI government, he said, adding that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) also did not find any evidence regarding the conspiracy.
"This is all part of the record. We wanted to bring this to the public. And we left the decision to the-then government."
However, this did not happen and more rumours were spread for political mileage, he said, adding that the Pakistan Army was also targeted.
At this time, Sharif and other journalists were fed a particular narrative and an attempt was made to defame Pakistan and the country's institutions across the world, he said.
"In this media trial, ARY News played the role of a spin doctor in targeting the army and promoting a false narrative [...] the NSC meeting was presented in the wrong context."
Gen Iftikhar stated that the army was expected to intervene in domestic politics. "The word neutral and apolitical was turned into an abuse. To all this baseless narrative, the army chief and the institution showed restraint and we tried our level best that politicians sit together to resolve their issues."
He noted that Sharif made strong comments regarding the army during this time but added that "we did not have any negative sentiments about him and we don't have such feelings now".
Threat letter for KP
During the press conference, the DG ISPR revealed that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government on August 5 issued a threat letter on the directives of Chief Minister Mahmood Khan which stated that a Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter group was looking to target Sharif.
"In this regard, no info was shared with the institutions who provided them the information."
This shows the threat alert was issued with the aim to force Sharif to leave the country, Gen Iftikhar said.
"There was reports that he (Sharif) did not want to leave the country but he kept being reminded that he was facing a threat" to his life, he said.
He went on to say that on August 8, Shahbaz Gill's statement on ARY News regarding the country's institutions was condemned and the politician was arrested a day later.
He said that when ARY News head Ammad Yousuf was arrested in August, it emerged that ARY CEO Salman Iqbal had asked the former to send Sharif abroad as soon as possible.
The DG ISPR stated that a manager in the ARY Group booked a ticket for Sharif for Dubai, according to which he was supposed to be back on September 9.
"On Aug 10, he left Peshawar airport thorough EK-637 for Dubai. He was provided complete protocol by the KP government," he said, adding that the late journalist was escorted by KP officers to the airport.
"Arshad remained in the UAE until he had a valid visa. He left for Kenya when his visa for Dubai expired."
He said that no one "forced" Sharif to leave Dubai at a government level and questioned who exactly forced him to leave. He also questioned who processed the journalist's documents in the UAE, who looked after his accommodation, who forced him to not return to Pakistan and who assured him that he was safe in Kenya.
He also questioned who was in contact with Sharif from Pakistan and who was hosting him in Kenya.
"Kenyan police accepted their mistake and it has to be examined whether this is a case of mistaken identity or one of targeted killing. There are several questions that have to be answered," he said, calling for a "transparent and fair probe".
Therefore, the government has been requested to form a high-level inquiry commission, he said.
'Salman Iqbal should be brought back'
The DG ISPR went on to say that the name of the ARY CEO was surfacing again and again. "He should be brought back to Pakistan and made part of the probe."
He said that after Sharif's death, people had started pointing fingers at the army. "It has to be determined who exactly benefitted from his killing."
"It's your responsibility now unearth the facts and bring them to light. We have to wait for the report from the inquiry commission. Until the report is released, it is not appropriate to make allegations".
He said that Pakistan was a "dignified and independent nation", urging people to "have belief in your institutions".
"No one wants to be labelled a traitor after serving for 30-40 years. We can be weak, we can make mistakes, but we can never be a traitor or conspirator. The army is nothing without the people," he said, adding that now was the time for "unity and discipline".
DG ISI's first public appearance, says COAS presented 'lucrative offer' for extension in March
In an unprecedented move, the ISI chief also made an appearance in today's press conference — the first time in Pakistan's history.
"I am aware that you are surprised by my presence," he said, adding that he had appeared for his institution and the officers who were sacrificing their lives. "As chief of this agency, I cannot remain silent when they are targeted for no reason."
Lt Gen Anjum said the nation had given him the responsibility to take secrets to the grave. "But when needed and when necessary, I will bring those facts to light".
Talking about the officers martyred in Lasbela, he said that they were mocked. Therefore, it is highly condemnable to speak without proof, he said, adding that words like "neutral and janwar" were meant to illustrate that the institution was indulging in sedition.
He added that these words were also being used because the institution refused to bend to an "unconstitutional and illegal act".
"Last year, the establishment decided that it would restrict itself to its constitutional role [...] The army had an intense discussion and we reached the conclusion that the country's benefit lies in us restricting ourselves to our constitutional role and remaining out of politics."
He said that in March, there was "a lot of pressure" but the institution and the army chief decided to limit the military to its constitutional role.
If Gen Bajwa wanted, he could have spent the last few months of his tenure comfortably but he made sacrifices in the country's best interest, he said, adding that the army chief's family was also targeted.
Lt Gen Anjum also made the revelation that in March, Gen Bajwa was given a "lucrative offer" for an extension in his tenure. "It was made in front of me. He rejected it because he wanted the institution to move forward from a controversial role to a constitutional role."
Seemingly talking about former premier Imran, the ISI chief said that while citizens had the right to their opinion, why did "you praise him so much in the past if he was a traitor?"
"If you see him as a traitor, then why do you meet him through the back door? [...] Don't do this where you meet quietly at night through the back door and express your unconstitutional wishes but call [the army chief] a traitor in broad daylight. That's a big contradiction between your words and your actions."
Later in response to a question about who offered the extension to the COAS, he said that it was "evident" that it was the government in power at the time.
"The offer was made because the no-confidence motion was at its peak," he said.
"Pakistan is a democratic country and deciding [about its] friends and foes is the domain of democratically elected government. The institution's role is to present their analysis on the basis of their information. The decision will be the government's."
He went on to say that politics of hatred created instability and lamented that this was divisive in society.
The ISI chief said that when he was appointed, he was asked about the country's main issue. "I said it was our economic woes, But those who asked the question did not agree. In their view, the opposition was the biggest problem."
'Not here for personal reasons'
He said that political intolerance causes instability, stating that constitutional and legal ways needed to be pursued. "When we go through the back door, it causes anarchy in the country."
Talking about the decision to appear during today's press conference, Lt Gen Anjum stated that it was in defence of the country's institutions.
"I would often see that lies [were being perpetuated] and the youth was accepting it. I did not make an appearance for personal reasons. I saw the way the country and institutions were facing threats due to lies which is why I broke my silence."
Later during the presser, he said that he was not here for personal reasons.
"There were campaigns against me in March on social media. I got a call from the agency that a campaign was underway against me. I told them get in touch when the retweets exceed eight thousand million. Before that, I don't care about myself"
He said that he would have addressed the media earlier if it was for personal reasons. "Those sacrificing their lives should not have to face these lies. Hence, remaining silence was morally unacceptable to me."
'Sharif was in contact with establishment'
Talking about Sharif, the ISI chief said he was a "competent, hardworking and able journalist". "Some quarters may have differences with his political views but his dedication for work is undeniable."
However, he stated that as per his reports, Sharif did not face any threat in Pakistan. Lt Gen Anjum said that members of Sharif's family were martyred officers and the journalist had contacts with the establishment.
"When he went abroad, he was still in contact [with the establishment]."
The DG ISI said he was in contact with his Kenyan counterpart regarding the probe, adding that initial investigations said it was a case of mistaken identity.
"Perhaps we and the government are not fully convinced. That's why the government has formed a team that will head to Kenya."
He went on to say that intelligence officers had been removed from the probe teams so that a "fair probe" could be conducted. "Whatever conclusion is reached, the DG ISPR will inform you about it."
In response to a question about the journalist receiving threats from the ISI, he reiterated that Sharif had "good contacts" with his subordinates. He also said that if the establishment did not want the journalist to leave the country, he would not be able to do so.
"We had no personal enmity with him. He had old contacts with our officers. Other journalists also say they receive calls. This is a lie," he said, adding that there were apps that allowed the caller to conceal their identity.