The South Asia Channel

Raymond Davis and the cost of immunity

The curious case of Raymond Davis is still being played out in Pakistan with all the cloak-and-dagger intrigue befitting a James Bond novel, and today American president Barack Obama himself got involved. Washington has been consistently loud and clear in its message to Islamabad: a Pakistani refusal to hand over the 36-year-old former Special Forces officer who shot and killed two Pakistani men in what he claims was self-defense will be the mother of all deal-breakers for bilateral ties. On trial in Pakistan is not Raymond Davis, however, nor only the already bottomed-out reputation of the United States -- the credibility of the government of Pakistan is also at stake.

It appears that the U.S.'s message to Pakistan has sunk in. John Kerry has arrived in Pakistan today, offering an apology about the deaths of the brothers, Faizan and Faheem, and promising that Davis will be tried in a U.S. criminal investigation, remarks apparently intended to mollify Pakistanis angry about the case. Aside from holding an on-record briefing with senior Pakistan-based editors, the U.S. senator will meet the country's top leadership to, in the words of a U.S. embassy press release, "reaffirm U.S. support for the strategic relationship between the two countries." His trip comes just one day after Fauzia Wahab, the information secretary of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, said publicly that Davis enjoys diplomatic immunity; and two days before the U.S. is expected to file a petition with the Lahore High Court certifying Davis's diplomatic status, which most Pakistani legal and Foreign Office experts reportedly agree that he has -- thus making him immune from prosecution.

Much of the Pakistani discourse has summed up the January 27 incident as underscoring the extent to which Washington views Pakistani lives as cheap and, therefore, dispensable. Similarly, U.S. calls for Davis's release have been interpreted as deliberate moves to erode Pakistan's sovereignty.

According to Courtney Beale, the acting U.S. embassy spokesperson in Islamabad, nothing could be further from the truth. In January 2010, she told me, the U.S. apprized the Pakistan's National Security Adviser's office that Davis was being attached to the Islamabad mission with diplomatic agent status. "We received no certificate of objection," she said. Beale, however, is unable to clarify if Davis was in possession of an arms license or a diplomatic visa at the time of the shooting. Referring to the shooting, she notes that the "Government of Pakistan makes it very hard" by not always stamping diplomatic visas on diplomatic staff passports. "Even I don't have one on my passport," she admitted. But Beale is keen to stress that if Islamabad has retrospective questions regarding Davis's status, the U.S. position is clear: this is a matter for Pakistan's federal government to resolve, not a provincial court.

Yet Islamabad's reliance on Pakistan's judicial system as impartial arbiter has been seen by many as a deliberate maneuver to abdicate responsibility and publicly position itself on the side of the Pakistani people, who are angry: to defend the integrity of Pakistan before American hubris. Indeed, Rehman Malik, the interior minister, has already announced that the government will provide a stipend and house as compensation to the families of the two brothers as well as that of Ibadur Rehman, the bystander run down by a U.S. Consulate vehicle as it rushed to Davis's aid. The compensation question, however, remains problematic in the absence of a thorough investigation and public verdict on the brothers' identities. Unnamed Pakistani security sources have described them as intelligence agents who had been tracking Davis for an extensive period of time. If true, this could lend support to Davis's claims of self-defense. Yet by indirectly siding with the families of the men, Islamabad is going all out to thwart a public backlash against Davis's release -- which is looking more and more likely.

While this may be described as opportunism at its worst, it is to be expected, according to Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa, author of Military Inc. In Pakistan, she says, the state's political ideology is non-existent. "It's an artificial theory and anti-Americanism is the key." Both the government and the armed forces are heavily dependent on U.S. assistance and policy makers in Pakistan, she says, have cooperated with Washington to the point where they can sell their policies and stay in power. "But when their legitimacy runs out, they drop everything on the U.S. doorstep." Thus a public show of supporting the people against perceived U.S. hegemony and imperialism represents the fastest means for the government to re-legitimize itself.

This, however, cannot be a successful long-term strategy. The government is already losing the credibility war in upholding Pakistan's sovereignty. Pakistanis now know, courtesy of WikiLeaks, that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani green-lighted the ramping up of the CIA drone program back in 2008, while vowing to denounce it in parliament for appearances' sake. The bypassing of that democratic institution means that many today see Islamabad, not the U.S., as the primary violator of Pakistan's national sovereignty.

It also means that Pakistanis are unsure of just how much faith they can place in their government's official rhetoric. In 2008, the government confirmed it had received an 11-point wish-list from the U.S., reportedly including the request that all U.S. embassy technical and administrative staff be granted diplomatic status; that they be allowed to carry arms, with U.S. arms licenses recognized in Pakistan; and that U.S. nationals be exclusively subject to American jurisdiction in the case of damage to property or loss of life. At the time, Islamabad denied it had agreed to any of these demands. Today, the Raymond Davis case raises question marks over whether this is yet another instance of deliberate government deceit.

As Imran Khan, the founder and chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice, a small opposition party) put it to me last week, "The people don't trust the government any more. It has time and again proven that it lies to its public." This is why he believes that it is only proper that Davis be tried before local courts, so that Islamabad's role, if any, also be brought to light.

In addition, Khan believes that if Davis is simply handed over to Washington, "no one will accept the [immunity] verdict and it will lead to anti-Americanism and increase extremism in Pakistan." This, he says, is because "Pakistanis will immediately compare this case to Aafia Siddiqui [the Pakistani neuroscientist convicted last year in an American court of attempted murder and armed assault on U.S. officers in Afghanistan]. She, for attempted murder, is serving 86 years. And here there are two dead bodies." Needless to say, an Aafia-Davis trade is not going to happen.

When Davis appears in court on February 17, the Pakistani government's credibility will also be on trial. And the verdict in that case will come from the people of Pakistan.

Miranda Husain is a Lahore-based journalist and has worked at the Daily Times, Express TV, The Friday Times and Newsweek Pakistan.

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

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