Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Raymond Davis: Dirty tricks squad out in the open

The U.S. has committed several outright crimes in the course of its fancifully named “global war on terror”. These have invariably been embroidered and portrayed as accidental missteps that the morally righteous occasionally make. A vital safety valve has been the assurance that the government of Pakistan, its one indispensable and most conflicted ally in the enterprise, would willingly step up to accept responsibility for some of the imperial misdeeds of the U.S.

It is one thing carrying out an air strike from a remote location where the identity of the author remains concealed and scores of dead civilians could be put down to “collateral damage”. It is another to kill two civilians in a furious daylight shootout in a crowded street of Pakistan’s largest city, and run over another in a seeming attempt to extract the gunman from the scene of the crime. The effrontery would not have been out of place in the “wild west”, or the 19th century conquest of the North American frontier, where legitimation lay in firepower and fleet horses. Today, it claims the protection of an international covenant on diplomatic immunity.

Raymond Davis, an official attached to the U.S. mission in Pakistan, has in three weeks since his derring-do in the Mozang area of Lahore, acquired an almost ethereal aura of mystery. He was first reported to have escaped from the scene of the crime and reached safe haven in the U.S. consulate in Lahore. It later emerged that only the crew of the getaway car that skittered away from the spot, killing a motorcyclist as it drove frantically up the wrong direction on a one-way street, had escaped to diplomatic nirvana. Davis himself was handed over to the custody of the local police.

The story that came out of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Pakistan then spoke of Davis as hapless victim of a robbery attempt as he drove through a crowded Lahore street in a hired car. Facing a mortal threat, the former U.S. marine with well-honed instincts of survival, pulled out his authorised firearm and shot to kill. The two persons who approached him with ill-intent, Faizan Haidar and Faheem Shamshad, residents of a nearby area in Lahore, were shot four and five times respectively – both suffering at least one bullet wound in the back. After discharging these lethal volleys through the window of his car, Davis alighted and filmed his two victims using a cell-phone camera, before calling in a vehicle that was obviously not far from the scene.

Davis reportedly expected a quick evacuation from the scene. But the car that rushed in for the rescue failed to reach the spot because of the crowd that had gathered and then turned tail, killing a motorcyclist who got in the way.

The U.S. mission in Pakistan it is widely known, goes far beyond diplomacy. Residents of Islamabad, Lahore and other major cities have indeed, for long believed that their living spaces are being invaded by shadowy warriors who work under the cloak of diplomatic protection, but are in reality freebooters making their own little fortunes out of the war chest that the U.S. has assembled to pursue its worldwide crusade. Blackwater, a favoured recipient of U.S. defence contracts during the Bush-Cheney regime – since renamed XE corporation because of a serious image problem – is believed to be rampant in Pakistan, notably in the capital city of Islamabad.

The U.S. did not do Davis’ case of diplomatic immunity any good by first describing him as part of the “technical” staff attached to the U.S. mission, and then as a “security” consultant. He was then identified as a private security contractor who was on hire in Pakistan. Though in possession of a diplomatic passport, he had seemingly been granted a business visa by the Pakistan foreign ministry when he arrived in the country in late-2009, worked for a while with the U.S. mission in Peshawar and then transferred to Lahore.

Writing in the U.S. mainstream press, a former intelligence operative described the Mozang incident as possibly a spy tryst gone bad. Overwhelmingly though, the U.S. media has chosen to remain quiet or to solidly back up the official effort to extend the cloak of diplomatic protection and have Davis safely repatriated out of Pakistan, despite being potentially guilty of a capital crime.

The effort to secure diplomatic immunity for Davis under the 1961 Vienna Convention is laughable and would long since have been dismissed were it not for the quarters it is coming from. Small and vulnerable states like Pakistan have lost the ability to deal on principle with any manner of diktat issued by the U.S. And few have shown the inclination to retrieve the dusty pages of the Vienna Convention and understand what it is about.

A diplomatic person under the Vienna Convention is somebody posted elsewhere by his or her home State and mandated, among various other things, to engage in “ascertaining by all lawful means” (the) “conditions and developments” in the host State. Commensurate with his conduct within the defined parameters, a diplomatic person would be assured of exemption from the civil and administrative jurisdiction of authorities in the host State. It is explicitly laid down that a “diplomatic agent … shall enjoy only immunity from jurisdiction, and inviolability, in respect of official acts performed in the exercise of his functions”.

In other words, if the claim of immunity is being advanced on behalf of Davis, it needs to be explained how driving through a crowded quarter of Lahore city where foreign nationals rarely venture, carrying lethal firearms and much other paraphernalia of espionage, could be described as legitimate diplomatic activity. The onus here is primarily on the U.S. government, though there is much the Pakistan government knows that it will not reveal. As Davis’s flight to safety is blocked by this seeming contest of wills between two governments aligned in a war of dubious morality, public opinion in Pakistan is in ferment. Perhaps for the first time in close to a decade, the Davis episode represents an occasion when the authority of governments to act with absolute impunity has been blocked by an active assertion of the public will. That may well embody the prospect that a glimmer of light could illuminate at least some of the dark and sordid deeds that have been committed in the name of the war on terror.

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