The political crisis roiling Pakistan has morphed into a constitutional crisis. The dual crises were kicked into motion when former Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from power last year and deepened with his recent imprisonment on corruption charges.
Last week, the Pakistani authorities moved to charge Khan under Pakistan’s Official Secrets Act for his alleged mishandling of a classified diplomatic cable, known internally as a cipher. The March 7, 2022, cable had been at the center of a controversy in Pakistan, with Khan and his supporters claiming for a year and a half that it showed U.S. pressure to remove the prime minister. Khan publicly revealed the existence of the document in a late March 2022 rally. In April, Khan was removed by a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
In the latest blow to the former prime minister, Pakistani authorities filed a First Information Report — an official allegation — charging that Khan and his associates were “involved in communication of information contained in secret classified document … to the unauthorized persons (i.e. 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 official report, the first step to a formal indictment, alleged that Khan and members of his government held a “clandestine meeting” in mid-March 2022, shortly after the cable was sent, in a conspiracy to use the classified document to their advantage.
Earlier this month, The Intercept reported on the contents of the secret cable, which confirmed U.S. diplomatic pressure to remove Khan. The document was provided to The Intercept by a source in the Pakistani military. The formal allegation against Khan makes no mention of The Intercept’s publication of the diplomatic cable.
After the allegations about the cable were formally lodged against Khan this weekend, a wrinkle quickly appeared in the case. Pakistan’s legislature, widely believed to be acting as a rubber stamp for the military, recently approved changes to the state secrets law that Khan was being charged under. Pakistan’s sitting President Arif Alvi, though, denied on social media that he had authorized the signing of the amendments into law.
“As God is my witness, I did not sign Official Secrets Amendment Bill 2023 & Pakistan Army Amendment Bill 2023 as I disagreed with these laws,” Alvi tweeted, referring to another controversial new piece of legislation granting the Pakistani military sweeping powers over civil liberties. “However I have found out today that my staff undermined my will and command.”
The additions to the Official Secrets Act specifically target leakers and whistleblowers, outlining new offenses for the disclosure of information to the public related to national security and effectively criminalizing any news reporting that the military deems to be against its interests. Khan is expected to be indicted soon under the new law.
Alvi’s statement — that he had opposed the laws, but that his staff had apparently signed off on them without his consent — throws Pakistan into uncharted constitutional territory. Under normal circumstances, the country’s president is required to give final affirmation to any laws passed by Parliament.
Imran Khan’s Imprisonment
Khan is reportedly under pressure while in government custody. According to media accounts, he lodged complaints about surveillance in prison, as well as the inability to meet with lawyers and family members. And Khan’s wife has expressed fears that the former prime minister could be “poisoned” in jail.
The former prime minister is currently serving a three-year sentence on corruption charges that his supporters say are politically motivated. As part of his punishment in that case, he has also received a five-year ban from politics, which is believed to be aimed at preventing Khan — the most popular politician in the country — from contesting elections slated for later this year.
Meanwhile, the crackdown on Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, Khan’s political party, continued. On Sunday, shortly after Khan was booked under the state secrets law, his former foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, was arrested under the same statute.
In an interview with Voice of America last week, former Trump administration national security adviser John Bolton called for Congress to look into potential U.S. involvement in Khan’s removal. Bolton said that despite his differences with many of Khan’s policies, which included strident criticism of U.S. involvement in Pakistani domestic affairs, he opposed the crackdown by the military, saying “terrorists, China and Russia” could use the discord to their advantage.
“I would be stunned if that’s exactly what they said,” Bolton said of the cable text published by The Intercept. “It would be remarkable for the State Department, under any administration, but particularly under the Biden administration, to be calling for Imran Khan’s overthrow.”