Increasingly vulnerable

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Of some natural and plenty of self-created conflicts

The sentencing of Dr Shakil Afridi to 33 years in jail initially for his alleged cooperation with the CIA in undertaking a fake vaccination campaign to collect DNA samples of Osama bin Laden’s family leading to his ultimate elimination was subjected to widespread criticism on various counts. The fundamental objections were two-pronged: that he was tried far away from the scene of the alleged crime in the FATA under the notorious Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) by a council of elders headed by the Assistant Political Agent and that he was not given the right to engage a lawyer to defend himself.

Four charges were framed against him: conspiracy to wage war against Pakistan or depriving it of its sovereignty (10 years under section 121 A), concealing existence of a plan to wage war against Pakistan (10 years under section 123), condemnation of the creation of the state and advocacy of abolition of its sovereignty (10 years under section 123 A) and assaulting president, governor, etc. with intention to compel or restrain the exercise of any lawful power (3 years under section 124).

Appearing in a couple of television programmes, this scribe pointed out the glaring anomalies between the contents of the charge sheet and the nature of the actual crime, but my more learned colleagues didn’t find anything wrong there and also defended the severity of the punishment asserting that treason, indeed, had been committed. Much to the angst of these servile minds, the government has now clarified that the punishment was, in fact, meted out to Dr Afridi for colluding with the banned Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) and its chief Mengal Bagh (since denied by the outfit). It has also been revealed that the four-member tribal court did not entertain the evidence relating to Dr Afridi’s involvement with the CIA leading to the raid in Abbottabad citing lack of jurisdiction as the main reason and recommended that he be produced before a relevant court for further proceedings under the law. This, therefore, leaves open the prospect of him being tried again for having committed treason.

Externally, in addition to criticism of the severity of the punishment and the manner in which it was handed down, the US government has responded by clamping a cut-down on aid to Pakistan to the tune of $1 million for every year of the imprisonment awarded to Dr. Afridi. In other words, the aid would stand reduced by a wobbling margin of $33 million every year.

While no one would have approved the disproportionate nature of the US response, this quick somersault on the reasons why Dr Afridi was sentenced so heavily is indicative of the extreme vulnerability of the government that is under assault on various fronts. I fail to understand that the entire media, both electronic and print, was so grotesquely wrong in reporting the enormity and reasons for the sentencing. And if they were right the first time around, I fail to understand why the government had to retract and earn the dubiousness of adding the title of fickleness to the original ones of haste and recklessness.

Pakistan was wrong in following the course that it did while the US was wrong in responding the way it did. If Pakistan believed that Dr Afridi had cooperated illegally with the CIA, adversely impacting its sovereign interests, it should have pursued the case against him in an open and transparent manner under normal law which would have carried credibility and acceptance. The hideous nature of the FCR and the swiftness with which the sentence was proclaimed without as much as giving the convict a right to defend himself is indicative of a pre-meditated resolve to inflict the punishment. It should also have been viewed in the larger ambit of the US-Pakistan relations carrying severe implications for the latter in the future both in terms of its economic impact and the mounting drive to alienate it from the international community. The fact that, while Pakistan is desperately engaged in a fence-mending exercise with the US on the quiet, its refusal to stop flaunting a bravado approach in public is extremely damaging in the context of both mitigating immediate results and counter-productive long-term dividends. Pakistan and the US have to work together closely for reducing and, ultimately, bridging the vast trust deficit that marks their relations at this critical juncture. Dr Afridi’s conviction could have waited and the US response needed a more deliberate evaluation.

There is also the need to look into the FCR urgently and bring it in line with the demands and requirements of civilised international law which is practised in the rest of Pakistan. Treating a region any differently from the way the rest of the country is treated creates an anomaly that is difficult either to explain or sustain. Pakistan needs one law. The FCR must be abolished forthwith and this part of the country should be treated as any other part without any discrimination.

This step is also desirable in terms of making the area more sensitive to the contemporary needs of co-existence. The world is one large expanse where everyone is literally exposed to everyone else. We are all under a huge microscope and every act of ours is being registered on some screen somewhere. There is no escape. We have to come good on both our intentions and our delivery. We have to devise a system that is conducive to generating internal harmony and for us to operate as a viable and credible regional and international player. Dependent that we are on external support, we cannot afford to be ostracised.

The writer is a political analyst and a member of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. He can be reached at [email protected]