Pakistan: walking a tightrope

Pakistani demonstrators shout slogans during a rally against a U.S. consular employee, suspected in a shooting, in Lahore, Pakistan, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011. A judge ruled Thursday that police can keep holding a U.S. Embassy employee accused of killing two Pakistanis for at least eight more days, officials said. The U.S. says the American, identified by Pakistanis as Raymond Allen Davis, has diplomatic immunity and that Pakistan must free him. U.S. officials say he shot the two Pakistanis in the city of Lahore because they were trying to rob him. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)   | Photo Credit: K.M. Chaudary

Very little in the case of the American employee of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Pakistan, arrested after the killing of two locals in “self-defence” in a crowded intersection of Lahore on January 27, rings true. The only cold facts are the bodies that have been piling up.

First, there were the bodies of the two men that the American — whose name is yet to be confirmed but referred to in the media as Raymond Davis — admits to have gunned down. Then there is the third man run over by a speeding U.S. embassy vehicle that was rushing to Davis' help. And, now — 10 days later — the wife of one of the two men killed by Davis commits suicide; apparently in protest against the ‘VIP' treatment being given to him and fearing that he would be allowed to go free by a pliant government.

Much else in this case, which has whipped up rampant anti-American sentiments and hogged the headlines since January 27, remains in the realm of speculation, fed primarily by the refusal of both governments to clear the air on who the American is and what he was doing in Pakistan. While the Pakistan government has maintained a studied silence — except for the Interior Minister stating that Davis has a diplomatic passport and the general insistence that the courts would decide the matter — the U.S. is yet to reveal his name even. And, for the first two days after the incident, the U.S. embassy refused to comment on whether he had diplomatic immunity.

Four statements from the U.S. embassy in Islamabad make no mention of his name, and Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley added to the confusion by stating in his Washington briefing, a day after the incident, that the name doing the rounds in the media was incorrect.

Instead of clearing the air, the official statements put out by the mission added grist to the rumour mill. The media did not have to split hair to make their reports. The U.S. embassy was most helpful. First, it called Davis a staff member of the Consulate-General in Lahore. A day later — by when 48 hours had passed — it described him as a “U.S. diplomat” assigned to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad with a diplomatic passport and a Pakistani visa valid till June 2012.

Invoking the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which allows him diplomatic immunity, the embassy demanded his immediate release and accused the local police and senior authorities of failing to observe their legal obligation to verify his status with either the U.S. Consulate-General in Lahore or the embassy in Islamabad. “Furthermore, the diplomat was formally arrested and remanded in custody, which is a violation of international norms and the Vienna Convention, to which Pakistan is a signatory,” the embassy said.

Without saying anything officially, the Pakistan government let the word out that as per its records, there was no U.S. diplomat by the name Raymond Davis and a person with that name had been issued a visa to work in the U.S. embassy as a technician. This got the Americans to admit a day later that the man was on the embassy's technical and administrative staff but asserted that such employees are also entitled to criminal immunity under Article 37 of the Vienna Convention.

This is all that has been made available by way of ‘facts;' the rest is all conjecture — based on calculated leaks and educated guesses — but in a country prone to conspiracy theories and for a nation familiar with the machinations of the U.S. in the past, the speculation becomes plausible. More so when the U.S. is held to blame for the blowback effect that Pakistan is facing by virtue of being an ally in the American global war on terror. As one lawyer who believes Davis ought to be extended diplomatic immunity put it, the question is whether popular opinion should be allowed to decide the fate of the American and, as a consequence, bilateral relations. But then, he rues, “right now ‘popular opinion' holds the nation hostage.”

While moderate voices say the furore is misplaced given the rising crime graph and the fact that the two men Davis killed were apparently armed — giving the American reason enough to fire in self-defence as white-skinned foreigners do face a security risk in this country — the average Pakistani views the incident as a graphic example of the impunity with which Americans operate in the country. That the Americans have no explanation for Davis carrying a gun — Mr. Crowley sidestepped the question whether American diplomats in Pakistan were allowed to carry weapons — feeds into the Pakistani sentiment and almost instantly the incident was equated with the drone attacks by the Central Intelligence Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Given that U.S. diplomatic cables leaked by the WikiLeaks recently show the Pakistan government speaking in two voices on the drone attacks — protesting for the consumption of the domestic audience while allowing the CIA's unmanned Predators into Pakistani airspace as per a tacit agreement — the widespread apprehension is that the federal dispensation will allow Davis to get away. The general belief is that he is a private security operative like Blackwater agents who are allowed a free run of the country.

Most Pakistanis are certain that had it been the other way round — a Pakistani diplomat killing two Americans in the U.S. — Washington would have moved heaven and earth to punish him as was the case when Georgian Deputy Ambassador Gueorgui Makharadze killed a girl in a driving accident in 1997. The U.S. got Georgia to waive diplomatic immunity in that case.

The vocal U.S. demands for the release of Davis and the pressure tactics only lend credence to the belief that America will resort to every means to get its man out. When no headway was made through persuasion, the U.S. began tightening the screws at various levels. A visiting congressional delegation conveyed to the Prime Minister that the Armed Services Committee may find it difficult to approve military aid and arms supply to Pakistan if the American official remained in custody. The State Department snapped all communication with the Pakistan embassy in Washington and now the U.S. has apparently put on hold all scheduled bilateral contacts.

The federal government, thus, finds itself forced to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, there is immense pressure from the U.S. — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called up President Asif Ali Zardari over the weekend and also raised the issue with the Chief of the Army Staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference — amid fears of what this one incident could do to the strategic alliance. On the other, there is the clear and present danger of a street backlash if Davis is let off, similar to the street power shown by the ‘religious' right-wing organisations over amendments to the blasphemy law.

But it is not as if Pakistan is alone in having to do a trapeze act. The U.S. also cannot afford this strain on bilateral ties as Washington has always maintained that Islamabad's cooperation in going after terrorists who get safe havens on Pakistani soil along the border with Afghanistan is crucial to the restoration of normalcy in Afghanistan. This particularly rough patch in bilateral ties between two countries which have had a history of blow-hot-blow-cold relationship could not have come at a worse time as the U.S. hopes to begin troops withdrawal from Afghanistan in July.

Little wonder then that satirist and radio host Fasi Zaka wrote in The Express Tribune on February 1: “We have begun the most political of tennis matches, the Desi Davis Cup for the prize of Raymond Davis's freedom or conviction … The court of choice will be clay, slippery for both Pakistan and America.” And, from the way this “match” has proceeded, there is no straight set clincher coming up.

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