Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi answers a question during the panel discussion with the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan, New York, on September 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jeenah Moon

A report, purportedly delivered by Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) to the secretariat of the Prime Minister sometime in July, has plunged the country’s troubled Pakistan Muslim League (N) government deeper into crisis.

The spy agency’s report links dozens of treasury members with proscribed militant outfits and banned sectarian groups, serving a further political jolt to the government following the disqualification of its figurehead, Nawaz Sharif, as Prime Minister on July 28. In response, a group of 37 members of the national assembly – including federal ministers – staged a walkout from parliament last week. 

The treasury lawmakers implicated were furious when a TV news channel leaked the report, which was allegedly submitted by the IB – Pakistan’s civilian spy agency – at the behest of Nawaz when he was still in office. It listed senior PML(N) figures – including Minister for Inter-Provincial Co-ordination Riaz Pirzada, Minister for Law and Justice Zahid Hamid, the National Assembly’s Deputy Speaker Murtaza Javed Abbasi, and assembly member Awais Leghari – as having links to extremist outfits. 

Before walking out of the lower house in a rage, Riaz Pirzada denounced the government for bringing parliament into disrepute. He demanded an impartial investigation to determine who instructed the IB to monitor the activities of lawmakers.

The government now appears to be on the back foot amid a fierce reaction from the treasury benches, who rose in a virtual revolt against their own government. On Monday, sitting Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was moved to tell the house that the “monitoring report” was in fact concocted and that his predecessor had emphatically not authorized any investigation by the IB to implicate treasury members.

Abbasi’s attempts to brand the report false and phony did nothing to calm those members down, however. Pirzada asserted in a brief talk with journalists outside parliament that the letter from the PM’s office authorizing the IB to act was not fake. “We are collecting facts through our own sources and will soon get to the bottom of the issue,” he said, adding that the letter should be “undone” by a statement declaring the IB’s investigations fallacious and misleading.

Party sources told Asia Times the group is suspected to have been attempting to orchestrate some kind of “forward block” that would gain support among other “disgruntled” members

In the meantime, the IB has also gone on the offensive. The bureau approached last week lodged several cases with the police against the ARY news channel and its anchor, Arshad Sharif, for reporting on a “fabricated” letter about parliamentarians. The IB denies receiving any directives from the Prime Minister’s office issued or initiating investigations itself.

Journalist organizations throughout the country have responded with sharp criticism of the spy agency’s arrogance and demanded the withdrawal of cases registered against the media house and journalist. The president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), Afzal Butt, warned in a statement that intimidation or arrest of journalists or family members before an inquiry was conducted would motivate it to launch countrywide protests. The main opposition parties – who have given their backing to the protesting lawmakers – are urging the government to conduct a judicial inquiry.

PML(N) party sources told Asia Times that most of the members named on the supposed IB list were politicians who had previously switched their loyalty from the breakaway PML(Q). They also belong mostly to the deprived southern part of Punjab province.

This group is suspected to have been attempting to orchestrate some kind of “forward block” in the party that would gain support among other “disgruntled” members, the sources said, adding that the PML(N) leadership had been concerned about defections having a snowball effect at a time of crisis. They said they suspected the IB might have been roped in to “maintain unity within party ranks.”