The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested PTI Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi from his residence in Islamabad on Saturday and booked him under the Official Secrets Act, 1923, in a case pertaining to a diplomatic cypher.

The FIA is currently interrogating incarcerated PTI chief Imran Khan in the case related to the diplomatic cable that reportedly went missing from his custody and which he has for long presented as evidence of a “foreign conspiracy” to remove him as the prime minister.

The first information report (FIR) against Qureshi that surfaced today said Imran was also nominated in the case registered on August 15.

The FIR, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, was registered on the complaint of Ministry of Interior Secretary Yousaf Naseem Khokhar.

It invoked Sections 5 (wrongful communication of information) and 9 (attempt to commit or abet the commission of an offence under this Secrets Act) of the Official Secrets Act read with Section 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).

According to the FIR, on March 7, 2022, the then-foreign secretary received a cipher dispatched from Washington. It said that a conclusion of a case registered with the FIA’s counter-terrorism department on Oct 5, 2022, transpired that former prime minister Imran Khan, ex-foreign minister Qureshi and their other associates “are involved in the communication of information contained in [the] secret classified document … to unauthorised persons (ie public at large)”.

The cipher, which US-based news website Intercept recently claimed to have obtained and published, was waved by former PM Imran at a public gathering days before his ouster from the top office as proof of a conspiracy to remove his government.

The FIR registered by the FIA accused Imran, Qureshi and their associates of sharing the information contained in the cipher “by twisting the facts to achieve their ulterior motives and personal gains in a manner prejudicial to the interests of state security”.

“They held a clandestine meeting at [Imran’s] Bani Gala [residence] on March 28, 2022 to conspire to misuse the contents of the cipher in order to accomplish their nefarious designs.

“The accused Imran Khan […] with malafide intention directed his then principal secretary Muhammad Azam Khan to prepare minutes (record notes) of the said clandestine meeting by manipulating the context of the cipher message to use it for his vested interest at the cost of national safety.”

The FIR further alleged that the numbered and accountable copy of the cipher sent to the PM’s Office was “deliberately” kept by then-premier Imran with “malafide intention” and was never returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The said cipher (an official secret document classified as such) is still in the illegal possession/ retention of the accused Imran Khan. The unauthorised retention and misuse of the cipher telegram by the accused persons compromised the entire cypher security system of the state and secret communication method of Pakistani missions abroad,” it said.

The FIR added: “These actions by the accused persons directly/ indirectly benefitted the interest of foreign powers and caused loss to the state of Pakistan.

“The competent authority has granted approval for the registration of the case. Therefore, at police station CTW FIA , Islamabad, prima facie, a case under Section 5 and 9 of the Official Secrets Act read with Section 34 of the PPC is registered against former PM Imran Khan and former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi for wrongful communication/ use of official secret information and illegal retention of the cipher telegram (official secret document) with malafide intention, whereas as role of SPM Azam Khan, former federal minister Asad Umar and other associates involved will be ascertained during the coarse of investigations.”

The arrest

Earlier today, the PTI posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the party’s vice chairman “has been illegally arrested once again”. The statement said Qureshi was taken into custody “by a large contingent of police” from his residence in the federal capital, adding that he was being taken to the FIA headquarters.

Later, interim Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti confirmed Qureshi’s arrest on Geo News show Naya Pakistan, saying that the former foreign minister would soon be presented in the court.

“We have to enforce the law and all those nominated in the cipher case will be arrested and presented in court, he said.”

When asked whether Qureshi’s detention was linked to a press conference he held right before his arrest and where he confirmed that he had held meetings with foreign envoys in recent days, Bugti replied in the negative.

Before the FIR against Qureshi surfaced, several PTI leaders maintained that his arrest was linked to the press conference, where Qureshi also refuted reports of rifts within the PTI and announced that the party would be moving the Supreme Court (SC) against the delay in general elections.

Qureshi’s press conference

Addressing a press conference at the National Press Club in Islamabad alongside other PTI leaders earlier today, Qureshi confirmed that he had a breakfast meeting with the Australian high commissioner in Islamabad, adding that other important ambassadors were present on the occasion as well.

He said the PTI presented its stance on the current political situation during the meeting and raised its concerns about the security situation.

“We had a good conversation, which was presented in the media as if it centred on Imran’s release,” he said, refuting reports of the PTI chief’s release of the matter of the diplomatic cipher being discussed in the meeting.

The PTI leaders also dismissed media reports of a further split within what’s left of the party’s top leadership.

A Geo News report claimed that following the PTI chief’s August 5 arrest in the Toshakhana case, the party’s core committee saw another split as well as infighting, with both Vice Chairman Qureshi and PTI Secretary General Omar Ayub allegedly attempting to succeed Imran as the party chief.

Qureshi addressed the claim and remarked that “a media house had attempted to spread confusion.”

Lauding the party’s core committee and legal team for the conditions and difficult circumstances they were operating in, Qureshi said: “Such news [of further rifts] is concocted, a plan of disinformation and part of a scheme to create confusion in the party rank and file and to affect their minds.

“There is no truth to this and it will break down in due time.”

Qureshi said the claim being made about him and Ayub trying to take over the party had “no truth to it”. He said Ayub had immediately responded to the allegation with a post on X, and “negated that confusion with great understanding”.

He also ridiculed any notion of a leadership struggle within the party, saying that Imran was still the chairman and the core committee had passed a resolution affirming the same.

Qureshi also addressed the matter of delay in general elections, adding that the party would move the SC and was in the process of finalising its petition.

He also called on other political parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam and PPP to present a clear stance on the issue.

Earlier today, the PTI had shared Ayub’s rejoinder to the “fabricated news” regarding its alleged internal divisions.

Ayub said there were no groups in the party or its core committee.

“Decision-making is being done with consensus and very smoothly as per the framework made by Imran Khan himself,” he added, further saying that he held Qureshi in high regard and there had not been any argument during any committee meeting.

Separately, PTI leader Advocate Sher Afzal Khan Marwat claimed there were “traitors” present in the party’s core committee and Imran’s legal team, adding that they had put his own life in danger.

“They have passed on recordings of the core committee meetings to the opponents and even to media persons […] If I am allowed by the relevant persons in the party and if I survive the hunt, I will share the names of the traitors very soon,” he said in a post on X that he later deleted.

“I have been advised by the party leadership to delete the post and leave the matter of the compromised people to the PTI chairman for decision. I will delete the relevant post. Nonetheless, I had not named any individual and have thus no vicarious liability about speculations,” he said in a subsequent post.

Earlier, taking notice of his initial post, the PTI had said his claims would be fully investigated and that Marwat should have expressed his views within the party instead of taking to social media.

Condemnations

PTI Secretary General Ayub condemned Qureshi’s arrest, saying: “Had hoped that the reign of lawlessness would have ended after the exit of the fascist PDM government, but it appears that this caretaker government wants to break the records of their predecessor fascist government.”

PTI leader Farrukh Habib claimed Qureshi was arrested for “expressing the party’s position in a press conference and for attending a tea of foreign ambassadors recently”.

Without naming anyone, he added: “They want to … silence all voices by any means. The protection of personal freedom given in the Constitution of Pakistan has been abolished, the Constitution has been suspended.”

In his condemnation, former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa finance minister Taimur Jhagra questioned: “ Is it a coincidence that Qureshi was arrested after a press conference of the right sort, that presented his party’s stance? Is it a coincidence that just earlier today, rumours had been deliberately circulated that there were differences between Qureshi and Ayub? … Is it that despite every attempt, PTI has not broken and continues to stand firmly behind Imran Khan?“

Saying that Qureshi had been “available and collaborating with the judicial system and investigation agencies in all cases”, Jhagra demanded the PTI vice chairman’s immediate release.

“The law should not be made a joke,” he said.

PTI’s Zulfi Bukhari also maintained that Qureshi was “arrested for doing a press conference and re-affirming the PTI’s stance against all tyranny and pre-poll rigging that is going on currently in Pakistan”.

Cablegate

Imran was ousted as the prime minister through a no-confidence motion in the early hours of April 10, 2022 — a development he has long blamed on a conspiracy to remove him from office.

The controversy surrounding the motion against Imran last year 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.

Earlier this year, an alleged confession of Azam Khan, Imran’s former principal secretary, surfaced on social media wherein it was claimed that the narrative behind the cipher was fabricated.

The alleged confession 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.

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.

Imran responded by questioning the veracity of the cipher, saying he would not believe it was from Azam Khan until he has heard him say it himself.

Later, the FIA initiated a probe into the matter and subsequently, booked a case against Qureshi and Imran on August 15.

The Intercept story

Earlier this month, the US-based The Intercept published a story that purportedly detailed the contents of the cipher.

Although The Intercept claimed in its report that they were provided with the document by an anonymous source in the Pakistani military “who said that they had no ties to Imran Khan or Khan’s party,” many believe that the source of the leak could be the PTI itself.

The contents, purportedly of the cipher, contained an account of a meeting between US State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu, and Pakistani envoy Asad Majeed Khan.

“Don[ald Lu] referred to Pakistan’s position on the Ukraine crisis and said that ‘people here and in Europe are quite concerned about why Pakistan is taking such an aggressively neutral position (on Ukraine), if such a position is even possible. It does not seem such a neutral stand to us.’ He shared that in his discussions with the NSC, ‘it seems quite clear that this is the prime minister’s policy’,” said the excerpt published by The Intercept.

In response, Asad Majeed Khan said that this was not a correct reading of the situation as Pakistan’s position on Ukraine was a result of intense interagency consultations.

“I asked Don[ald Lu] if the reason for a strong US reaction was Pakistan’s abstention in the voting in the UNGA [United Nations General Assembly]. He categorically replied in the negative and said that it was due to the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow,” The Intercept quoted from the purported cable.

According to the text, Lu then said “I think if the no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister succeeds, all will be forgiven in Washington because the Russia visit is being looked at as a decision by the Prime Minister. Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.”

These words were ostensibly the threat that the former PM alluded to when he claimed there was a US conspiracy to overthrow his government.

“Obviously there is no conspiracy, but for a US official to use these words is unacceptable,” a senior diplomat commented, referring to Lu’s remark that “all will be forgiven” if the vote of no confidence succeeds.

The purported text of the cable details how Asad Majeed Khan tried to dispel the impression that Imran’s visit to Russia was anything but a bilateral one that shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of Moscow’s action against Ukraine. The ambassador also conveyed how there was also a “feeling that while the US expected Pakistan’s support on all issues that were important to the US, it did not reciprocate and we do not see much US support on issues of concern for Pakistan, particularly on Kashmir.

Asad Majeed Khan also asked the US diplomat if Pakistan’s position on Ukraine was so important to Washington, why it had not engaged with Islamabad prior to the Russia visit by then-PM Imran Khan.

At this, Donald Lu replied that: “The thinking in Washington was that given the current political turmoil in Pakistan, this was not the right time for such engagement and it could wait till the political situation in Pakistan settled down.”

Subsequently, in his own assessment at the tail-end of the purported text of the cable, Asad Majeed Khan noted that Lu could not have conveyed such a strong sentiment “without the express approval of the White House, to which he referred repeatedly.”

In the envoy’s own assessment, it was clear that Lu “spoke out of turn on Pakistan’s internal political process. We need to seriously reflect on this and consider making an appropriate demarche” to the US charge d’affaires in Islamabad.

Qureshi’s arrest over May 9

Qureshi’s arrest today comes a little over two months after his release in a case pertaining to May 9 protests, which erupted following the arrest of party chairman Imran Khan in a graft case.

He was taken into custody on May 11 by the Islamabad police on multiple charges, including “inciting violent protests”.

On May 18, the Islamabad High Court had ordered the former foreign minister’s release. However, his release was delayed due to his apparent reluctance to provide an undertaking to refrain from engaging in “unruly” protests.

When Qureshi was finally set free on May 23, he was again taken into custody by Punjab police from outside Adiala Jail after his detention orders were issued by the Rawalpindi deputy commissioner.

He was eventually released on June 6 after Lahore High Court’s Rawalpindi bench ordered his immediate release and set aside his detention orders.

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