Pakistani authorities Saturday arrested Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a twice-former foreign minister and current opposition leader, on charges that he played a role in misusing official secret information for political gains.
Qureshi, the acting head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, the party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, was taken into custody from his residence in Islamabad just hours after he addressed a news conference, condemning a police crackdown on his party workers.
Officials said Qureshi was detained in connection with an ongoing investigation into a March 7, 2022, Pakistani secret diplomatic cable, known internally as a cipher, which allegedly contained a threat from the United States to remove then-Prime Minister Khan from power.
The cipher allegedly documented a meeting between U.S. State Department officials and Islamabad’s then-ambassador to the U.S., Asad Majeed Khan.
Last week, an American news outlet, The Intercept, published what it said was the cipher text for the first time, which Imran Khan has long held up as evidence of his claim that Washington engineered his defeat in a parliamentary no-confidence motion in April last year.
According to the Pakistani ambassador’s purported cable, the State Department officials at the meeting encouraged him to tell Pakistan’s powerful military that if Imran Khan were removed from office over his neutrality on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Islamabad could expect warmer relations with Washington.
Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency reported in its initial findings that Imran Khan, Qureshi, and their associates “are involved in (the) communication of information contained in (the) secret classified document” to the public at large and “in a manner prejudicial to the interests of state security.”
No legal expert has questioned the legality of sharing the information.
The FIA investigation, conducted under the Official Secret Act, an anti-espionage law, alleged that the cipher “is still in the illegal possession/retention” of Imran Khan.
The former prime minister, currently jailed for three years after being convicted on graft charges, has long rejected the allegations of possessing the cipher or leaking any official secrets.
Khan, 70, maintains that cipher messages are written in a secret machine language and cannot be removed from a special cell established at the foreign ministry.
Former Pakistani diplomats back Khan’s assertions that only a summary of the cipher is shared with the prime minister and a few other top officials, not the original cipher.
Before he was ousted from office, Khan had formally dispatched copies of the cipher summary to the country’s chief justice, the military chief, and the house speaker, among others, asking them to order an investigation to determine who in Pakistan facilitated the alleged U.S. conspiracy to remove him from office.
Last week, U.S. State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller said it had privately and publicly conveyed objections to Pakistan over the previous year’s visit to Russia by Khan but rejected allegations that Washington had played a role in his removal.
Miller added that even if the comments in the purported cable were accurate as reported, they show the United States is expressing concern about Khan’s “policy choices” rather than expressing its “preference” on who the leadership of Pakistan ought to be.
“We expressed concern privately to the government of Pakistan as we expressed concerns publicly about the visit of then-Prime Minister Khan to Moscow on the very day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We made that concern quite clear.”
Khan blames his ouster on the powerful military and says it is behind scores of lawsuits launched against him since then. The lawsuits accuse him of crimes ranging from terrorism and corruption to sedition and, if proved would block him and his party from returning to power.
After his conviction on graft charges, the deposed prime minister is barred from contesting any election for five years. He denies any wrongdoing.
Khan’s PTI won the last election in 2018, enabling the cricket-star-turned-politician to become prime minister for the first time until he was ousted in the no-confidence vote in April 2022.
His successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, dissolved the parliament and government earlier this month after completing their mandated terms. It allowed a caretaker government to take charge and oversee a general election meant to be held within 90 days, by November.
But the Pakistan Election Commission earlier in the week said it would announce an election date only after redrawing new constituencies nationwide in line with fresh census data. It said the process would be finalized by Dec. 14.
While speaking to reporters before his arrest Saturday, Qureshi rejected the commission’s statement as an excuse to delay the elections.
“It will be unconstitutional if the 90 days deadline is breached. We have decided to file a plea with the Supreme Court to contest any attempt to delay the election,” Qureshi said.
Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar is believed to be close to the military, fueling speculations his administration intends to stay in power for a more extended period.
Under the constitution, a caretaker setup in Pakistan is tasked only to oversee elections and manage day-to-day affairs until a new government is elected.
But critics note that a slew of hastily passed legislation just before Sharif dissolved the parliament has empowered Kakar’s government to make policy decisions, particularly on economic matters.