Donald Lu
Donald Lu

WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat told a Congressional panel on Wednesday that if the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) fails to investigate allegations of irregularities in the Feb 8 elections, it will “retard” America’s relationship with Pakistan.

US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, a central figure in the cipher controversy, also vehemently denied all accusations levelled against him by former prime minister Imran Khan and his party, branding them “lies” and “falsehoods”, and told the panel that he and his family had even faced death threats as a result of the allegations.

Mr Lu is the diplomat whose supposed warning — relayed to Islamabad via confidential cipher by a former Pakistani envoy to the US — became the focal point for PTI’s allegations that Washington was behind the ouster of Mr Khan’s government in 2022. The PTI founder is currently on trial for mishandling the confidential document.

“I want to be very clear on this point. These allegations — this conspiracy theory — is a lie… It is not accurate. At no point does it accuse the US government or me personally of taking steps against Imran Khan,” he said, amid heckling and chanting from PTI supporters present in the galleries.

Amid heckling and chants, Donald Lu reveals threats to himself, his family in wake of PTI founder’s ‘regime change’ allegations

Meanwhile, Rep Tim Burchett questioned if the US asked for Imran Khan to be removed from power after his visit to Russia, or whether aid to Pakistan was stopped because of Islamabad’s refusal to vote against Russia in the United Nations, to which Mr Lu responded in the negative.

He was also asked about his alleged role in the ouster of the PTI government, to which he said: “I was absolutely not involved, nor were any Americans involved in that process.”

Responding to another set of questions by Mr Burchett, Mr Lu explained that no US official was involved in any “regime change” conspiracy against Imran Khan. “Not even a contractor?” the congressman asked. “No, not even a contractor,” Mr Lu replied.

Election irregularities

“We have never used the term ‘free and fair’ in characterising these elections,” Mr Lu said in response to a question from Congressman August Pfluger, a Texas Republican.

When asked if the election results would have been different if alleged irregularities were not committed, he said that was for the ECP to decide. However, he agreed with the suggestion that the ECP should hold a re-election if it found evidence of substantial rigging in some constituencies.

Asked if the ECP’s failure to investigate irregularities would impact US-Pakistan relations, he said it would be an impediment to the relationship of 76 years if Pakistan does not have a democratic process that upholds its own Constitution.

“It will retard our ability to have the type of relationship we want, in security matters, on [the] business front and people to people. All that suffers if Pakistan is not a full democracy,” he said.

“The US does not go around recognising new governments,” said Mr Lu when Congressman Greg Casar, a Texas Democrat, asked him if Washington recognises the new government in Pakistan. The US administration, he explained, works with the government in power.

Disruption of X and treatment of PTI

Representative Gabe Amo asked Mr Lu about issues related to press freedom and access to social media platforms, to which the latter said that one of the most “damaging things” witnessed was the restriction on social media.

“When the internet gets pulled down or X gets throttled, as it has been now for several weeks, it denies Pakistanis from getting the kind of diversity of reporting information that they deserve. We are talking to the Pakistani government at the highest levels about these issues,” the diplomat said.

When Brad Sherman quizzed about the persecution of Imran Khan and his party, Mr Lu said the US had raised its concerns about the mass detentions, including of PTI members, after the May 9 riots and the use of military courts.

US partnership with Pakistan against terrorism

Responding to another question about ties with the Pakistani military, the diplomat said that the US and Pakistani militaries have ties going back decades. He noted that it was the sixth largest military in the world and the largest of any Muslim nation. “Our generals train with their generals,” he added.

Mr Lu said that the US continues to monitor the weapons it provides to Pakistan, such as the F-16s, to ensure their correct use. He also explained that the US was not considering any substantial military assistance to Pakistan at the moment.

Questioned on the ability of Pakistan’s government to prove to be and continue to be a good partner for the US in the region, he said the country was a very “important partner” and a major non-Nato ally.

However, Mr Lu did say that the US administration viewed Pakistan’s current relationship with the Afghan Taliban with “suspicion”.

He said the current greatest terrorist threat to Pakistan emanated from Afghanistan, adding that the Taliban’s relationship with the neighbour was the same as their relationship with the US.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2024

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