• Following leak of supposed confession, Azam Khan returns home after having been missing for over a month
• Interior minister seeks PTI chief’s trial under Official Secrets Act; FIA summons ex-PM on July 25
• Imran promises exposé, party terms allegations ‘lies’; US official exasperated by question on ‘confession’

ISLAMABAD: Former prime minister Imran Khan’s ex-principal secretary — in an alleged confession that surfaced on Wednesday — accused his former boss of using a cipher from Pakistan’s mission in the US to gain political mileage and build an ‘anti-establishment narrative’ on the back of the ‘confidential’ document.

But hours after Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah held a press conference to lend credence to the confessional statement circulating on social media and assail the PTI chief, Azam Khan — who went missing last month — returned home, his lawyer told Dawn.

However, lawyer Qasim Wadud told Dawn that his client was “not in a condition” to comment on the statement being attributed to him.

Azam Khan went missing on June 15 and a case regarding his kidnapping was registered by the Islamabad police. According to the complaint, he left his house in the capital in the evening and did not return.

A petition seeking the recovery of Azam Khan is also pending before the IHC.

The ‘unverified’ statement, supposedly recorded under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, was lent credence by Mr Sanaullah, who termed it a ‘charge sheet’ against the former premier and proposed that the Official Secrets Act be used to prosecute the PTI chief.

Soon after his presser, the Federal Investigation Agency issued a notice to Imran Khan, asking him to appear before the bureau in Islamabad on July 25 in connection with the cipher probe.

On the other hand, for the PTI chairman, the alleged confession was hard to digest. Speaking to reporters during a court appearance on Wednesday, he said: “Azam Khan is an honest man; until I hear [this] from him myself, I will not believe it.”

‘Unverified’ statement

The unmarked statement attributed to Azam Khan states that “on March 8, 2022, [the] foreign secretary approached Mohammad Azam Khan and informed [him] regarding [the] cipher… [and] that [then] foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had already discussed the cipher with the Imran Khan…”

The statement claimed that Imran Khan was allegedly “euphoric” after seeing the cipher and decided to use it to build an “anti-establishment narrative” on the back of a ‘blunder’ committed by the US.

As per the alleged confession: “The cipher copy was retained by Imran Khan and the next day (March 10) when he asked for it, Imran Khan replied that he has misplaced it.” The statement claimed that the PTI chief did not return the original cipher, despite repeated requests.

It went on to state that the former PS to the PM had advised his boss not to disclose the contents of the cipher since it was a confidential document.

The statement of the bureaucrat was reportedly recorded under Section 164 of CrPC before a magistrate. Usually, a witness, an aggrieved person, or an accused records such a statement under oath and before a magistrate. And in the case of Section 161, the investigation officer records the statement of a witness, which does not even require the signature of the witness.

However, sources in the district judiciary said that the statement was not recorded before any judicial magistrate. There is a possibility that an executive magistrate might have recorded the statement; however, the purported statement has not been shared with the district judiciary yet.

‘Fabricated narrative’

After the statement went public, the interior minister termed the narrative behind the cipher ‘fabricated’. He claimed that Imran Khan committed a crime and ex-foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was an “abettor”.

The interior minister explained that since the cipher was a confidential document, its disclosure was unlawful and a crime. “This case is similar to the proceedings initiated against former US President Donald Trump for mishandling classified documents,” he added.

The minister 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 cipher is recovered,” Dawn.com quoted him as saying.

“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 in response to a question.

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.

Proper ‘expose’

In response to the allegations levelled by Mr Sanaullah, the PTI chairman promised a ‘proper expose’ on the cipher episode.

In a post from his Twitter account, Imran Khan claimed he would share “uncensored details” of how this conspiracy unfolded to overthrow a government. “I assure you, it will be more gripping than any drama on TV,” he quipped.

Meanwhile, a PTI spokesman, while terming the accusations a ‘pack of lies’, said the party chairman had already explained how the government was “forcing incarcerated and missing” party leaders to become approvers against Imran Khan.

The PTI spokesman also said the alleged statement of the senior bureaucrat would be disastrous for the Pakistan state’s point of view on the cipher.

“The National Security Committee (NSC) has twice authenticated the message given in the cipher in its two meetings held under the premiership of Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif,” he added.

The spokesman also said the NSC comprising civil and military leadership had termed the cipher an “interference into Pakistan’s internal matters” and the US was handed a demarche. The PTI spokesperson also stated the federal cabinet had reviewed the cipher ahead of the NSC meeting and declared it as a declassified document.

US official ‘exasperated’

The supposed statement made by Azam Khan also found mention at a US press briefing on Wednesday, much to the chagrin of the State Department spokesperson.

When asked about the allegations, he said: “I don’t know how many times I can respond to this question from the podium and give the same answer, which is that these allegations, such as they are, are completely unfounded.”

The questioner referenced the PTI chief’s achievements and asked the official why the US doesn’t help resolve this issue. To this, the spokesperson replied: “The US doesn’t involve itself with domestic political questions and we do not take sides on political parties in Pakistan or any other country.”

Mansoor Malik in Lahore also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2023

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