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The great escape

Published : Apr 22, 2011 00:00 IST

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In a well-orchestrated move, Raymond Davis, the American arrested for the killing of two Pakistanis, gets away.

in Islamabad

THAT Raymond Davis the American arrested in Pakistan for gunning down two armed natives in self-defence would walk free one day was a given. But when he did, it still left the nation stunned. So smoothly and quietly was his departure from the country carried out that no one outside the charmed circle of players got wind of what was going on inside the high security Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore on March 16.

The world got to know of his departure when the powers that be chose to tell it, not a second earlier. And by the time the announcement came, Davis was already airborne and on his way to Afghanistan, or so the legend goes.

From what has been pieced together by the local media with bits of information leaked out selectively, the entire day's events were scripted and even rehearsed a day before. The day began with news breaking that a sessions court had indicted Davis for murder. Everyone including the media and the jingoistic outfits referred to as the ghairat brigade' sat back anticipating a long-drawn-out court battle and the American spending many more days behind bars.

Hours later, shortly before sundown, Punjab's Law Minister Rana Sanaullah announced that Davis had been pardoned by his victims' relatives on payment of blood money as per the Sharia (Islamic law), acquitted by the lower court in view of the pardon, and had since flown out of the country in a special aircraft. For once, the never-at-a-loss-for-words media was also tongue-tied and not quite sure whom to go after and whom to tear apart.

Slowly but surely, it became clear that the entire turn of events had been orchestrated in a fashion that allowed both Pakistan and the United States to have their way. The indictment of Davis was Pakistan's way of rejecting the U.S. contention that he had diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961. And, by invoking the Qisas and Diyat provisions of the Sharia which the Americans have always questioned Pakistan gave the U.S. a way to get its man out according to the law of the land.

Well orchestrated

What happened in the hours between his indictment and release could really be straight out of the movies. First came the indictment. After this, the victims' lawyers were confined to the Kot Lakhpat Jail where the court proceedings were held in view of the security risks involved in transporting Davis to court for hearing and their cellphones confiscated. Some media reports claimed that the entire jail staff was also confined to the premises and their phones deactivated to ensure that word did not get out. Plausible on hindsight, given how well the secret was kept.

Next was the entry of a new lawyer acting on behalf of the victims' families and his submission to the court that they had pardoned Davis on payment of blood money a total of $2.3 million. The judge was also informed that each of the 18 recipients of the blood money was present outside the court to testify that they had willingly pardoned Davis and were not opposed to his acquittal. The Additional Sessions Judge then asked each of them to come in individually and testify before him. Satisfied that none of them acted under duress, the judge acquitted Davis, who was then taken out of the jail premises in a convoy and into a waiting aircraft.

The 18 family members of the two victims also vanished; some say they have been kept in a safe house to protect them from mobs, while others insist that they have been taken to a Gulf country from where they are expected to relocate to the U.S. as part of an undertaking given by the Americans to facilitate visas and jobs for them back home.

The judge is also said to have proceeded on leave from the following morning, and it was left to the political leadership of the country to become the fall guys. This time the Pakistan People's Party was not alone in taking the flak. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) which leads the provincial government in Punjab, where the entire Davis chapter unfolded as the shooting took place in Lahore was also in the dock as the release could not have happened without the knowledge of the local authorities.

Protests

The Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), too, came in for some criticism because in the six weeks that the Davis saga kept the nation engaged it had become amply clear that there would be no forward movement without the consent of the real power centre in Pakistan. Religious right-wing parties across the country called for protests, and fearing a backlash, the U.S. Embassy decided to shut down its mission in Islamabad and Consulates-General in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar on March 18.

But most analysts in Pakistan did not pay much attention to the protests and the inclusion of the Army and the ISI on the dart board, seeing it as part of the script. The protests drew lukewarm response, and as defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa wrote in her column, the General Headquarters will ensure that this [anger] does not really boil over.

Ironically enough, the religious right-wing parties were crying foul over the use of a provision of the Islamic law that they have fought hard to protect. Time and again, civil society has pointed out that the Qisas and Diyat law is loaded in favour of the rich and powerful as it allows them to buy their way out of the criminal justice system, but the religious parties have stonewalled any attempt to plug such loopholes. This time, too, the debate followed the same trajectory, with the liberals flagging the issue to no avail.

Meanwhile, questions were also asked about who coughed up the blood money as the U.S. maintained that Washington had not paid any money to secure Davis' release. But a week later, that was a question of academic interest as was the new terms of engagement the ISI is said to have worked out for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Dominant narrative

Through the Davis stand-off, the dominant narrative in Pakistan was that he was a CIA operative and his presence was proof of the ISI's suspicion that the American spy agency had many more like him surveying the country to set up its own network here. That Davis was a CIA operative was more or less established with the American media's connivance in keeping his identity under wraps for several weeks, but no answers were forthcoming on how so many CIA operatives the figures quoted sometimes ran into hundreds were moving around the countryside unnoticed.

Selective leaks suggested that new ground rules for the CIA's operation had been laid down by the ISI. This narrative came apart exactly a day after Davis' release when CIA-controlled drones struck at Datta Khel in North Waziristan, killing over 40 people. The Foreign Office was quick to condemn the drone strike, and Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir demanded an apology from U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter.

By midnight, the Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani issued a rare statement condemning the attack. Munter was summoned the following day by Bashir and told that Pakistan should not be taken for granted nor treated as a client state. Stating that the fundamentals of bilateral relations evidently needed revisiting, the Foreign Office added: It was for the White House and the State Department to hold back those who have been trying to veer Pakistan-U.S. relationship away from the track.

A week later, no apology was forthcoming from the U.S. though in the meantime the Embassy issued three condolences one for a coal mine accident in Quetta, another for the Quran burning incident in Florida and a third for a terror attack in Gwadar.

Islamabad also pulled out of the March 26 trilateral meeting of the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan on Afghanistan in Brussels in protest, maintaining that it could not be business as usual unless certain red lines were drawn on the drone strikes. Though the drone attacks are believed to be conducted with the tacit approval of the civil and military leadership of the country, the drone policy, like much else about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, remains under wraps.

Given that the Pakistani Army had in early March conceded that the drones had been successful in taking out a number of hard-core Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists, and civilian casualties which go by the phrase collateral damage are not new in Predator strikes, the outrage displayed by Islamabad is being viewed in certain quarters as an attempt to deflect the criticism of abject surrender' to the U.S. on the Davis issue.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but hearsay has a life of its own. Particularly, in the Davis case. But for the corpses that piled up first of the two men he gunned down, then the man run over by a U.S. Embassy vehicle rushing to the American's rescue and, lastly, the suicide' committed by the widow of one of his victims little else can qualify to be termed a fact'. In fact, where is Raymond Davis today?

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Apr 22, 2011.)

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