Deepening chasm

Deepening chasm

A spat between Pakistan and the US over the arrest of an American citizen in Lahore threatens to roil bilateral relations. Raymond Davis, an employee in the US consulate, has been in police custody since late January for shooting dead two Pakistanis.

He has admitted to the shootings but claims he did so in self-defence. To make matters worse, a US consulate vehicle that came to rescue Davis ran over a third person. The driver, also a consulate employee, is in custody too. The US is calling for Davis’ release, claiming he is a diplomat with immunity from prosecution. Pakistanis don’t agree.

Few believe Davis is a diplomat and want him to be tried in Pakistan.  Public indignation has been mounting over the US’ trampling on Pakistani sovereignty, especially in the context of the escalating strikes by unmanned American drones in the country’s northwest. And now the Americans are demanding that Davis be handed over to them when he faces murder charges in Pakistan.

On the face of it, the US enjoys enormous leverage in the ongoing tussle; it could shut off the aid tap if Pakistan does not concede its demands. However, cutting aid will only make the Pakistan government an even more recalcitrant ally in the ‘war on terrorism’. It is more likely that the Americans will do another deal with the Pakistani establishment to get it to hand over Davis.

American officials will be tempted to spirit away Davis to the US, the way they enabled Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson to escape from India after the Bhopal gas leak. They must bear in mind that any such move will have serious consequences. It will only reaffirm American highhandedness in the minds of Pakistanis. Anti-American sentiment and public anger with American double standards is already high in Pakistan. This will mount if the US resorts to underhand means, backroom deals or bullying to get Davis out.

The Pakistan government is under tremendous domestic pressure to put Davis on trial. He faces two charges — murder and possession of illegal weapons. If he is to be tried in Pakistan, Islamabad must ensure that the trial is fair. Pakistani public anger with the US is understandable but this cannot be allowed to affect the delivery of justice. The Davis saga has the potential to derail US-Pakistan relations, destabilise the Pakistan government and undermine regional security.