An unlikely and bizarre press conference stunned the people and political observers in Pakistan on Thursday. “You all must be surprised to see me here,” Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, one of the country’s highest ranking generals and the director general of one of the world’s most secretive spy agencies, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), said in a press conference in Rawalpindi city.
“The nation gave me the responsibility to take secrets to the grave,” Anjum added. “But when needed and necessary, I will bring those facts to light.”
This was the first time in the history of Pakistan that the head of the secretive spy agency gave a live briefing or addressed the media. And it took the death of a Pakistani journalist in Kenya to bring them out in the open.
On October 23, Arshad Sharif, a well-known journalist in Pakistan, was shot dead by the Kenyan police. Sharif had fled to Kenya in August after receiving death threats. He was also facing sedition charges in multiple cities after criticising Pakistan’s powerful military. The details of the shootout given by Kenyan police, which they claim is a case of mistaken identity, are being called dodgy, and critics suggest the possibility of an assassination.
The ISI press conference came in the thick of the Sharif investigation, while thousands were attending his funeral miles away. The military’s spy agency the ISI is powerful in Pakistan. Critics accuse them of interfering and manipulating politics. The agency is also famously tightlipped with the press. The ISI chief Anjum himself banned the media from releasing his own photos and videos when he took reins of the organisation last year.
“If the ISI chief is rolled out for the cameras, then you know something extraordinary is going on,” political analyst Michael Kugelman told VICE World News. And this, he added, involves ousted prime minister Imran Khan.
Khan, Pakistan’s most popular political leader, was removed this April by a no-confidence vote, but he claimed his ouster was an international conspiracy led by the U.S. to topple his government. Slain journalist Sharif was a big-time supporter of Khan, who presented news segments and interviews with the leader at the height of the crisis. Both Khan and Sharif were close to Pakistan’s military establishment, a relationship that became strained after Khan lost power. This year saw Khan make consistent jabs at the military leadership at huge rallies, even referring to a top military general as an “animal” and “traitor.” Likewise, Sharif’s criticism of the military had grown louder too.
Observers say that the surprise presser was impeccably timed with Sharif’s funeral, which saw tens of thousands in attendance, chanting, “Your blood will bring revolution.” This week, Khan told the media that Sharif’s death “highlighted an ongoing targeting of anyone who dares to criticise or question those holding power.”
“The press briefing is a clear sign of intensifying conflict between the current military leadership and Imran Khan,” said Pakistani journalist Cyril Almeida, whose work has previously scrutinised both the Pakistani military and Khan’s governance.
Almeida said that the press conference suggests either the ISI’s determination to crush the narrative “spun” by Khan, or that “there’s panic in the ISI ranks. When the military had a fallout with Imran Khan, they didn’t anticipate that sections of the media – including Sharif – that favoured them in some manner would then decide to stick with Khan,” he said.
On Thursday, spy chief Anjum addressed the criticisms against the military hurled by Khan in the recent past, and accused him of asking the military for illegal favours to stay in power. He noted Sharif’s involvement in the political crisis as a vocal critic of the military who was caught in a “narrative that was far from reality,” allegedly spun by Khan and his party.
The agency, however, added that it still needs to investigate whether Sharif’s death is directly linked to the political crisis involving Khan.
Pakistan is also a dangerous battleground for journalists, and has been witnessing a rise in attacks, intimidation and threats against them, especially if they criticised the government or the military. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts Sharif among nearly 100 journalists killed in the country since 1992.
At the presser, Anjum was joined by Lieutenant General Babar Iftikhar, the director general of the Pakistani military’s public relations. They both questioned the involvement of Sharif’s employer ARY News, which was once considered sympathetic to the military but is now considered partial to Khan and his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Iftikhar questioned the role of top ARY management in arranging Sharif’s departure from the country – to Dubai – after he received death threats from a splinter extremist group in Pakistan. Now the ISI is questioning who facilitated Sharif’s move to Kenya in August after his Dubai visa expired, and is demanding international experts participate in the probe.
Almeida noted that attacks against journalists have never been probed independently in Pakistan before, and that it would be a “remarkable surprise” if Sharif’s case sets a precedent.
In the meantime, Khan is marching to Islamabad on Friday to demand early elections. “Will [the briefing] weaken Khan? Don’t count on it,” said Kugelman. “He will double down and count on the continued backing of a support base that’s not convinced by the arguments made at the [spy chief’s] briefing.”
“A long and ugly political crisis appears to be building to a crescendo.”
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