‘Missing cypher’ comes to haunt PTI top leadership

pakistan tehreek e insaf pti leader shah mehmood qureshi photo screengrab

Minutes after Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Saturday unequivocally conveyed in a news conference that party’s founding Chairman Imran Khan was irreplaceable and that the party was united under his vision, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested him from his residence in the federal capital in the cypher leak case under the Official Secrets Act, 1923.

The arrest also came on the heels of the party stalwart confirming that the PTI leaders met roughly seven diplomats of different countries at a breakfast at the Australian High Commission the other day where Imran’s imprisonment, cypher controversy and other political issues were discussed.

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

On Aug 5, Imran was arrested and sent to Attock jail after being declared guilty in the Toshakhana (gift repository) case. Though the cypher issue did not entirely fade out, it resurfaced after a US publication recently published its contents.

On March 27, 2022, ahead of a vote of no-confidence that resulted in his ouster, former premier Imran had pulled out a piece of paper – allegedly the cypher – from his pocket and waved it at a public gathering in Islamabad, claiming it was evidence of an “international conspiracy” being hatched to topple his government.

During the news conference, Qureshi, while demanding polls within the constitutional period of 90 days and a level-playing field for all parties before the general elections, admitted discussing the ongoing political situation, among other things, but denied having deliberated on Imran’s imprisonment and the cypher issue in the meeting.

The FIA had booked former premier Imran, former foreign minister Qureshi, among others, for “wrongful use” of official secret information and illegal retention of the cypher telegram – an official secret document – with malafide intention.

The FIR No 6/2023 read that the role of the former principal secretary Azam Khan, former planning minister Asad Umar, and others associates involved would be ascertained during the course of investigations.

The counter-terrorism wing of the FIA had registered a case under sections 5 (wrongful communication, etc, of information) and 9 (attempts, incitements, etc) of the Official Secrets Act of 1923 read with Section 34 (common intention) of the Pakistan Penal Code on the complaint of Ministry of Interior Secretary Yousaf Naseem Khokhar in Islamabad.

Through recent amendments in the Official Secrets Act, the words “has obtained” in Section 5 were replaced by the words “or retained”.

While the amendment in Section 9 states that “any person who incites to commit, conspires to commit, attempts to commit, aids or abets the commission of an offence under this Act shall be punishable with the same punishment, and be liable to proceeded against in the same manner as if he had committed such offence”.

Reportedly, President Dr Arif Alvi signed the Official Secrets Act on Saturday after it was passed by parliament.

The FIR revealed that the case had been registered upon the conclusion of an enquiry No111/2023 dated 05-10-2022 registered in the CTW of FIA.

It transpired that Imran, Qureshi, and their other associates were involved in communication of information contained in the secret classified document – Cypher Telegram received from Parep Washington dated March 7, 2022 to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs secretary – to the unauthorised person (public at large) by “twisting the facts to achieve their ulterior motives and personal gains in a manner prejudicial to the interests of state security”.

The FIR stated that the accused held a clandestine meeting at Bani Gala on March 28, 2022 to conspire to misuse the contents of the cypher in order to accomplish their nefarious designs.

“The accused Imran Khan malafidely directed the former SAPM Muhammad Azam Khan to prepare the minutes (record note) of said clandestine meeting by manipulating the contents of cypher message to use it for his vested interest at the cost of national safety,” it read.

The FIR continued that the numbered and accountable copy of cypher telegram sent to the PM Office was “deliberately” kept by then Prime Minister Imran Khan with “malafide intention”, and was never returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The said Cypher Telegram (official Secret Document classified as such) is still in the illegal possession/retention of the accused Imran Khan,” it maintained.

The FIR added that the “unauthorised retention and misuse of the Cypher Telegram by the accused persons compromised the entire cypher security system of the state and secret communication method of Pakistani missions abroad”.

“These actions by the accused directly/indirectly benefitted the interest of foreign powers and caused loss to the State of Pakistan,” it stated, adding that the competent authority granted approval for registration of case.

Earlier in the day, Qureshi expressed serious concerns over the mounting pressure on the PTI workers. He narrated how the leaders, including Usman Dar and Mohsin Leghari, and workers were subjected to unwarranted harassment in the wake of the May 9 attacks on key civil and military installations.

“The caretaker prime minister himself promised transparent elections but how transparent elections can take place under such circumstances,” Qureshi questioned.

He urged Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial to take notice of the situation and called upon the Election Commission of Pakistan to take action to ensure a level-playing field for all political parties.

Dispelling notions that the PTI was facing internal strife, Qureshi stressed, “It is incorrect to label PTI as a party in turmoil.”

He asserted that there was no alternative to PTI Chairman Imran, emphasising that the party’s core committee was actively working in the challenging circumstances.

Expressing dismay over what he termed delaying tactics, he said: “Constitutionally, it is mandatory to hold general elections within a 90-day period.” The PTI would approach the Supreme Court to oppose any delay in polls, he added.

He said the party’s legal team was preparing a petition in this regard.

Regarding the Council of Common Interests’ (CCI) decision to notify the new census results leading to a four-month delimitation exercise and ultimately delaying the polls, Qureshi criticised the inclusion of two interim chief ministers in the meeting, arguing that it was inappropriate.

He noted that the legal fraternity was also in favour of holding elections in 90 days, adding that Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq had also issued a statement in this regard.

He noted that differences within the former ruling coalition were apparent with the Pakistan Peoples Party now demanding polls within 90 days after “unanimously” approving the CCI decision just before the dissolution of the assembly.

He, however, said that discussion could take place with the PPP on the matter of holding elections within 90 days following the assembly’s dissolution.

Soon after Qureshi left the press club in Islamabad and reached his residence, the law enforcers took him into custody in the cypher case – reigniting the debate in the capital if he or someone else could become an approver against Imran in the coming days.