Sanaullah sees Azam Khan’s alleged statement on cipher controversy as ‘charge sheet’ against Imran

Published July 19, 2023
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah addresses a press conference in Islamabad on Wednesday. — DawnNewsTV
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah addresses a press conference in Islamabad on Wednesday. — DawnNewsTV

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said on Wednesday that the reported confession of ex-principal secretary Azam Khan was a “charge sheet” against PTI chief Imran Khan.

His remarks came as an alleged confession of Azam, Imran’s principal secretary when he was prime minister, surfaced on social media wherein he claimed that the narrative behind the cipher — which the PTI chief has for long presented as evidence of a “foreign conspiracy” to oust him from the top office — was fabricated.

Interestingly, the development comes a day after the Lahore High Court (LHC) withdrew a stay order against the call-up notice to Imran by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in an inquiry into an audio leak relating to the cipher. At the same time, a senior US official also publicly defended Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, who was blamed by Imran for orc­h­estrating the no-confidence vote that led to his ouster.

At the outset of the press conference in Islamabad, Sanaullah said Azam’s statement was a “charge sheet against Imran Khan Niazi”.

“It shows who conspired against this country and its institutions and played a game for his personal and political interest while damaging the country’s interests.

“On the one hand, he pushed the economy into a crisis and on the other, damaged the country’s foreign ties,” he maintained.

The minister said this person had “committed a crime” for which he should be “punished at all costs as those who played with the country’s interests have confessed their crime”.

And former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was also “fully involved in this crime”, he added.

Elaborating on the alleged crime, he said, “Making a classified document or a [piece of] information public and then taking it in one’s possession — no person is legally eligible to have it (cipher) in their custody”. The minister also likened the case to proceedings initiated against former US president Donald Trump on allegations of mishandling classified documents.

He further alleged that while “Imran told Azam that the cipher had gone missing, my assessment is that he (Imran) still has it”.

“So the cypher is with him. He has not just committed the crime of making it public, but he continues to be guilty of a crime by keeping it in his possession until he is arrested in this case and the cypher is recovered,” the minister said.

During the press conference, the interior minister was also asked about whether a case against those involved in the alleged conspiracy would be registered under Article 6 (high treason) of the Constitution.

“The law department’s opinion would be the final [decision] on this, but I think the Official Secrets Act is more relevant [in this case],” the interior minister said.

“Nevertheless, this is a punishable crime — to conspire against the country, expose a secret document and use it for your own interests and to damage the country’s interest and then to steal it, take it in your possession — this is a clear crime under the Official Secrets Act and it should be prosecuted.

“A punishment should be meted out over this and the [cipher] should be recovered,” he said.

Asked whether this case would also be referred to a “special court” as others being conducted under the Official Secrets Act, he replied in the affirmative.

“Yes, this case will definitely be referred to a special court,” he said emphatically.

Responding to a question about the PTI chief’s arrest in various cases against him, Sanaullah said, “Whether he is arrested first or gets convicted by the court, either of these decisions could be made”. Meanwhile, investigations against him in various cases were being conducted in which “evidence is also being collected and he is also being prosecuted”.

He also clarified that action in the case pertaining to the cipher would be limited to Imran, Qureshi any other of their “political associates” possibly involved in the matter.

The then-foreign secretary and Azam were not involved in “exposing the cipher, keeping it in their private possession and playing it up”, and hence, no action would be taken against them, he explained.

Azam Khan’s alleged confession

The alleged confession being attributed to Azam Khan said when Imran saw the cipher, he was “euphoric”, termed the language used in it a “blunder” of the US and said it could be “manipulated for creating a narrative against the establishment and opposition” and used to divert the public’s attention from the no-confidence motion he was facing as the prime minister at the time.

The statement, seen but not independently verified by Dawn.com, further alleged that Imran told Azam that he would display the cipher to the public and “twist the narrative that a foreign conspiracy was being hatched in collusion with local partners and play the victim card”.

According to the statement, Azam had handed over the cipher to Imran who later told him that he had misplaced it and did not return it despite repeated requests.

Sanaullah said in his press conference that the alleged statement was recorded by Azam before a judicial magistrate under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and Section 161 of the CrPC on the notices issued to him by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).

Later, he confirmed during Geo News show ‘Aaj Shahzeb Khanzada Kay Saath’ that the statement that had surfaced was the one Azam had recorded before the FIA a day ago.

The minister also said that an FIA joint investigation team would recommend after inquiry what charges were to be framed against Imran and others involved in the matter and that in case of Imran not cooperating in the probe, he could be arrested at the inquiry stage or later when a case was registered.

FIA summons Imran

Hours after the interior minister’s press conference, the FIA issued a notice to Imran with instructions to appear at its headquarters in Islamabad on July 25 (Tuesday).

The notice, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, said a joint inquiry team was conducting a probe on the direction of the federal cabinet “regarding the charges of prejudicing the national security and interest of the state by directly revealing, without proper authorisation, the classified information by the former prime minister, Imran Khan, his political associates and the-then secretary of the prime minister through a cipher telegram, its subsequent misuse and unauthorised retention”.

It further said as per the information and evidence available with the joint inquiry team, Imran, as the prime minister, was congnisant of facts pertaining to this probe.

According to the FIA, the agency issued two notices in the case to Imran earlier as well — on November 1 and November 30 last year — but he did not comply with them.

“Therefore, you (Imran) are once again noticed to appear (in person), on Tuesday, July 25, 2023, at 12pm, at FIA headquarters G-9/4, Islamabad without fail, before the joint inquiry team and bring along all information/ documents (believed to be within your custody/ domain) with respect to the cipher telegram.

“You may be required to answer such questions as may be put to you, pertaining to the probe, truthfully and honestly.

“You are further requested to bring along any/ all documentary evidence in support of your claim pertaining to the aforementioned matter,” the notice read.

The FIA warned Imran that his failure to comply with “this legal notice may entail that you have nothing to say in your defence” and ex parte action would be initiated against him on the basis of evidence available on record.

Imran says Azam is ‘honest man’

While the PML-N praised the alleged confession as evidence of wrongdoing, the PTI stood firm on the “existence” of the cipher.

Responding to reporters’ queries after appearing for a hearing at an Islamabad court, the PTI chief said, “Azam Khan is an honest man. Until I hear it from his mouth, I will not accept any statement.”

PTI’s Farrukh Habib responded to the development by alleging that Azam was first abducted, after which “all law enforcement and investigative agencies” denied having him in their custody.

“Today, suddenly news emerges that [Azam Khan’s] statement has been recorded to the magistrate under [Section] 164,” Habib said.

“Any statement recorded during kidnapping or under torture and pressure has no legal status.” He further said that a “drama and lie” was being run as the incumbent government “could not compete with Imran’s popularity”.

PTI leader Shahbaz Gill — who currently represents the party in the United States — recalled the demarche sent by the National Security Committee (NSC) chaired by Imran in response to the cipher after declaring it as “serious interference” in Pakistan’s internal affairs.

In another tweet, he said, “By the way, the statement for Section 164 is recorded before the magistrate. The police have said that they do not have Azam Khan.”

“Has Azam Khan been kidnapped by the magistrate?” he asked.

Meanwhile, the PML-N’s official Twitter account hailed the development by claiming that Azam’s statement “confirms […] Imran Khan is a fraudster!”

In another tweet, it insisted, “From orchestrating the events on May 9 to toying with national security, this man has done everything possible to inflict damage to the state of Pakistan!”

Who is Azam Khan?

Following the PTI chief’s ouster in April 2022, Azam’s name was put on a no-fly list along with other members of the PTI government. He was then posted to the Establishment Division.

In September 2022, a clip had surfaced on social media — seemingly featuring a conversation between Imran and Azam — about a cipher that the PTI chief has for long presented as evidence of a “foreign conspiracy” to oust him from the top office.

Following the emergence of the clip, the federal cabinet discussed it in a meeting and Sanaullah said that the clip revealed that Imran had hatched a conspiracy to fulfil his “anti-state agenda”.

Meanwhile, Imran had responded to the questions about the leak by saying: “The [US] cipher should leak so it comes out before everyone and everyone can know how big a foreign conspiracy happened.”

Another audio leak that surfaced days later had also supposedly featured Azam, along with Imran and PTI leaders Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Asad Umar.

During Imran’s tenure, he was given a clean chit by the National Accountability Bureau in the 275-acre Malam Jabba skiing-chairlift resort case in the light of recommendations of a special committee formed on the directive of the Peshawar High Court in March 2021.

Cablegate

The controversy surrounding the no-confidence motion against Imran took a dramatic turn when the embattled former premier brandished a letter at a rally on March 27, 2022 — days before his ouster — claiming it contained evidence of a “foreign conspiracy” hatched to topple his government.

Imran had kept mum about the contents of the letter when he first unveiled it but he spilled the beans days later by naming the United States when the exit of his government appeared imminent.

However, in November 2022, he had taken back his statement about US involvement and said he no longer “blamed” the US administration for his removal from power.

Imran’s allegation that the US spearheaded his exit from power was based on a cipher received from Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US Asad Majeed, in which the envoy had reported about a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs Donald Lu.

Majeed had reportedly said that Donald Lu warned that Imran’s continuation in office, who was set to face a vote of no confidence, would have repercussions on bilateral relations.

The US was said to be annoyed with Imran over his “independent foreign policy” and visit to Moscow.

The Pentagon and the State Department have repeatedly rejected the accusations, saying there was no veracity to them.

The National Security Committee (NSC), which includes all services chiefs as well as the head of Pakistan’s top intelligence agency, took up the matter on March 31 with then-premier Imran in the chair. The forum decided to issue a “strong demarche” to a country that it did not name over what it termed as “blatant interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan”.

It had also termed the interference “unacceptable under any circumstances” and said the language used in the communique was undiplomatic.

While the forum had stopped short of calling the interference a conspiracy at the time, another meeting of the NSC was held on April 22 with newly elected premier Shehbaz Sharif in the chair, and which included the same military chiefs who attended the March 31 session.

During its second meeting, the NSC statement said it “reaffirmed the decisions of the last NSC meeting” and explicitly went on to add that it found no evidence of a foreign conspiracy.

The audio clip

In the audio clip leaked in September 2022, a voice, believed to be Imran’s, is heard saying: “We only have to play on this. We don’t have to name [any country]. We only have to play with this, that this date was [decided] before.

“The new thing that will emerge is that the letter …”

Here, the second voice, believed to be of Azam, is heard, suggesting holding a meeting on the cipher.

“See, if you recall, in that the ambassador has written in the end to [send] a demarche. Even if the demarche is not to be sent, as I have thought a lot about it at night — you said they raised it — I thought about how to cover all this.

“Let’s hold a meeting with Shah Mahmood Qureshi (who was the foreign minister in Imran’s government) and the foreign secretary. Shah Mahmood Qureshi will read out that letter and whatever he reads out will be converted into a copy. I will then make minutes [out of it and say] that the foreign secretary has prepared this.

“But its (cipher’s) analysis will have to be conducted here. We will carry out the analysis and convert it into minutes as we want so that it becomes [part of] the office record.”

He elaborates that the analysis would conclude that “it is a threat. It is called a threat in diplomatic language”.

The man, believed to be Azam, adds that “minutes are in my hands … we will draft the minutes”.

Here, the person on the other end, purportedly Imran, is heard asking who would be called to the meeting. “Shah Mahmood, you, me and Sohail?”

Just these, the other person says.

“We will do it tomorrow,” the person believed to be Imran replies.

In turn, the voice, supposedly belonging to Azam, is heard explaining that following this plan, “things will become a part of the record.

“Consider that they are the consulate for the state. When he will read it out, I will easily copy it and it will be on record that this has happened.”

Moreover, he suggests that “you (supposedly Imran) call the foreign secretary so that it doesn’t remain political and becomes a part of the bureaucratic record”.

To this, the man believed to be Imran points out that an ambassador has written the cipher, implying that it should already be a part of the bureaucratic record since it has been written by an envoy.

“But we don’t have a copy of it. How did they release it?” the person on the other end replies.


Additional reporting by Abdullah Momand

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