Pakistani Government Walks Tightrope Between Radicals, U.S.

February 9, 2011 - 4:40 AM

Pakistan-Raymond Davis

Pakistanis protesting in Lahore call for the American diplomat known as Raymond Davis to be hanged. (AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)

(CNSNews.com) – Amid a worsening dispute over the arrest of a American citizen accused of killing two armed men in Lahore last month, Pakistan’s leaders appear to be leaning towards placating Islamist and nationalist sentiment at home rather than nurturing ties with its biggest funder.

After a meeting between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Tuesday, officials told Pakistani media that the two agreed they would tolerate no pressure from the U.S. in the case.

In another development demonstrating the government’s reluctance to challenge religious hardliners, Gilani gave new assurances to an Islamist leader Tuesday that there were no plans to amend Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws. President Obama raised the issue with Zardari last month in Washington.

The U.S. is steadily ramping up pressure for the release of the man known as Raymond Davis. U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter discuss the matter with Zardari on Monday, and Pakistani officials say the U.S. has declined to go ahead with some bilateral contacts while it remains unresolved.

Pakistan-American flag

Protestors burn an American flag during a rally against a U.S. consular employee suspected in a shooting, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Even a planned official visit to Washington by Zardari in the coming weeks may be in jeopardy, Pakistani sources told local media.

A bipartisan congressional delegation headed by House Armed Service Committee chairman Buck McKeon called for the American’s immediate release when meeting with Gilani in Islamabad on Friday. On their return, McKeon told reporters Tuesday they had made it clear that U.S. aid could be affected by the dispute.

The Obama administration requested $3.05 billion in military and economic assistance for Pakistan in fiscal year 2011.

Playing down the rift, Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit said bilateral ties were “mature enough to navigate through difficulties.”

The language from Washington has been stronger, with the State Department calling the arrest of the man, who it has not named but says is a diplomat entitled to immunity, a “gross violation of international law.”

It says he acted in self-defense after being attacked by “armed assailants” apparently intent on robbing him on a busy Lahore street on Jan. 27. A bystander was knocked down and killed when an escorting vehicle rushed to the diplomat’s aid.

So far, neither the federal government nor the government of Punjab, where the shooting occurred, are budging. Gilani told parliament the law would take its course, and Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah reiterated the position in a television interview.

The government is not only feeling heat from Washington. Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the Islamist political party Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), has declared that religious parties will not allow the government to “bargain over the blood of the slain Pakistanis.”

An editorial Wednesday in Peshawar’s Frontier Post accused the government of a “slavish [and] demeaning” embrace of the U.S., and said Washington was employing “bullying and blackmail” in a bid to get Davis released.

Munawar Hasan, head of another Islamist party, Jamaat e Islami, told a weekend meeting that the government of giving the U.S. “a license to kill.” He said “the nation” wanted the killers of the “innocent” citizens to be hanged.

The case has energized anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan, triggering protests in Lahore, Karachi and elsewhere featuring the burning of American flags and demands that Davis be sentenced to death.

Feeding the controversy are theories, speculation and rumor circulating in Pakistani media, among them that Davis was a CIA agent, linked to a private security contractor, had “spying equipment” in his possession, and had been in contact with militants in the tribal belt along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

One report claimed that the men he shot were not robbers but members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency who were tracking Davis’ movements.

Clinton-Gilani

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Pakistan's Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in Islamabad on Sunday, July 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley in a briefing maintained that the armed men shot during the incident were robbers.

Asked about reports claiming they were ISI agents, he said, “We don’t find them credible.”

Davis is due to appear Friday in the Lahore High Court, where police have filed two murder complaints and one of possession of illegal weapons.

After his last appearance, on Feb. 3, the U.S. Embassy noted that he had not had a lawyer present nor been given translation assistance. “He was denied due process and a fair hearing,” it said in a statement.

‘Implementing the US agenda’

The furor in Pakistan over the Davis case comes at a time when the government faces accusations of capitulating to radicals over the blasphemy laws, which critics say unfairly target Christians and other minorities.

Renewed controversy over the laws erupted after the sentencing to death late last year of a Christian woman convicted of insulting Mohammed, Islam’s prophet, and the subsequent assassination of a state governor who had advocated a pardon for the woman.

The laws have been the subject of discussions between Pakistani and U.S. officials, up to the highest level.

When Obama had a brief informal meeting on Jan. 14 with Zardari – who was in Washington for a memorial service for the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke – the blasphemy laws were discussed, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon told reporters at the time.

 

But the government has clearly chosen not to risk further angering radicals over the issue. Last week a lawmaker from Gilani’s ruling party dropped a private initiative to have the blasphemy laws amended, after failing to win the party’s backing.

Gilani gave the latest pledge not to revise the laws to JUI leader Rehman, whose party has spearheaded a campaign against the government to retain the provisions and enforce penalties handed down under them.

Rehman has warned that religious parties will not allow the government to “implement the U.S. agenda in the country” by changing the blasphemy laws.

Pakistanis are not universally in favor of the way the laws are enforced.

A group of non-governmental organizations, labor unions and others last December formed an umbrella coalition called Citizens for Democracy (CFD) to campaign against “the consistent misuse and abuse of the blasphemy laws.”

A CFD representative told CNSNews that the government’s response to the lawmaker’s effort to amend the law “appears to be based on political expediency and a tactical move to take the wind out of the sails of the ‘religious right’ that are using the issue to rally support.”

She said CFD would continue to highlight the misuse of the law, which was being “cynically used for personal or partisan purposes.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body that advises the administration and Congress, has since 2002 urged that Pakistan be designated an egregious violator under 1998 legislation that allows for sanctions and other policy options to promote religious freedom. The State Department has overruled the recommendation.