CIPHER GATE: Aide’s disclosure puts Imran in a fix

Azam Khan, a close aide of the PTI Chairman, recorded his statement against Imran Khan accusing him of peddling a false narrative about the US government’s involvement in a plot to unseat him

It is quite remarkable that former prime minister Imran Khan continues to thrive in Pakistan. This is despite his numerous court battles, fighting against Army Chief Asim Munir and efforts by the deep state to reduce the PTI to a minor party.

On the face of it, the deep state in Pakistan has enough evidence to get Imran Khan jailed and possibly killed. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that those against Imran Khan are hoping to keep him bogged down, and sufficiently weaken him till the time elections are held, if at all. The latest in this series of state-sponsored acts aimed at weakening Imran Khan is the so-called “confessional” statement of Azam Khan, former Principal Secretary to Imran Khan when he was Prime Minister of Pakistan and Chairman of PTI.

The alleged “disclosures” by the former bureaucrat, whose recent whereabouts have remained somewhat of a mystery, were quickly followed by a press conference by Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, who said the government would open criminal proceedings against the former Prime Minister on charges of exposing official secrets!

Azam Khan made headlines recently when he accused the former Prime Minister of using a US cipher message to create a false narrative against the military establishment and the opposition.

Azam Khan, a close aide of the PTI Chairman, recorded his statement against Imran Khan accusing him of peddling a false narrative about the US government’s involvement in a plot to unseat him. The statement claims that “On March 8, 2022, the Foreign Secretary approached Azam Khan and informed him regarding the cypher… and that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi had already discussed the cypher with Imran Khan,” the statement said. “Imran Khan was euphoric after seeing the cipher (secret diplomatic cable) and decided to use it to build on an anti-establishment narrative on the back of a ‘blunder’ committed by the US.

Interior Minister Sanaullah said Azam Khan’s statement was recorded 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 FIA. The recorded statement purportedly claims that Imran Khan manipulated a US diplomatic encrypted document (March 2022) to serve his political ends, adding that the former Principal Secretary testified to Imran Khan telling him that he had lost the cypher when asked to return it.

Sanaullah stated: “That cipher is still in his custody and he will remain a criminal until he returns the classified document or it is recovered by an investigation agency from him.”

Sanaullah asserted that the government would soon file charges in court against Imran Khan saying “It is a crime to expose an official secret.” The Interior Minister also alleged that the former PM still had the US cipher.

“The cipher copy was retained by Imran Khan and the next day (10 March 2022) when he (Azam Khan) asked for it, Imran Khan replied that he had misplaced it. Imran Khan did not return the original cypher despite repeated requests,” the Azam Khan statement added. It also highlighted that Azam Khan had advised the former premier not to disclose the contents of the cypher as it was a confidential document. Later, a meeting was called by Imran Khan, with Foreign Minister Qureshi, Azam Khan and the Foreign Secretary in attendance, in which, minutes of the meeting were penned down with the intention of using the information for political narrative building.

On 27 March 2022, Imran Khan publicly alleged that the US orchestrated a plan to remove him from office and brandished the cypher at a public rally to back his claims. Geo News reports that the US has time and again denied such allegations, terming them “categorically false”. A day prior to the Azam Khan confessional statement, Elizabeth Horst, US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State publicly defended Donald Lu, then Assistant Secretary of State, the person Imran Khan blamed for orchestrating the conspiracy against him, and said the allegations against him were “categorically false”.

She said the US had “communicated this publicly and privately,” while referring to numerous statements from US officials in which they proclaimed neutrality in Pakistan’s charged political environment. The PTI chief, who was deposed as PM in April 2022 through a parliamentary vote of no confidence, had accused the US in March last year of orchestrating a plan to oust him. He had referred to the cypher in question as evidence for his claims. Later the same year, the PTI chief shifted blame from the US to previous Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, saying he wished to mend fences with the former.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said Azam Khan’s confessional statement had exposed Imran Khan’s agenda, which was to spread instability across Pakistan and make the people rise up against the military establishment. Azam Khan’s statement has been termed by government officials as a charge sheet against Imran Khan and proposed to be used under the Official Secrets Act to prosecute the former PM. Soon after Sanaullah’s statement, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) issued a notice to Imran Khan to appear before it in Islamabad. Interestingly, the development came shortly after the Lahore High Court withdrew its stay order against the FIA call-up notice to Imran Khan in an inquiry into an audio leak relating to the cypher controversy. The court recalled the stay, allowing an appeal by the federal government challenging the stay secured by Imran Khan.

Hours after the interior minister’s press conference, the FIA issued another notice to Imran directing him to appear at its headquarters in Islamabad on 25 July. The notice 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 cypher telegram, its subsequent misuse and unauthorised retention”. As per the information and evidence available from the joint inquiry team, Imran Khan, as the prime minister, was cognisant of the facts pertaining to this probe. The notice also said that Imran failed to comply with two notices issued in the case to him earlier.

The cypher gate scandal in Pakistan thus continues to haunt Imran Khan who continues to play on the back foot, in cricketing terms. His Pakistan innings will remain circumscribed in the short term by the googlies that the deep state throws at him from time to time. While the PTI’s political base shrinks, Imran Khan’s popularity remains high making it necessary for the state to carry on with the charade of legally convicting him instead of quietly eliminating Imran Khan. Pressure from the deep state has necessitated Imran Khan to move from using the narrative of victimhood  (April 2022) to a more strident attack on the military establishment, which probably led to the events of 9 May. Today, Imran Khan has shown the tenacity that he displayed as a cricketer. His ability to retain this characteristic will determine his longevity in Pakistan.

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