Why US support for sacked Pakistan ambassador is a double-edged sword

Americans have voiced support for Pakistan's former Washington ambassador, under virtual house arrest following the 'memo-gate' scandal. But the atmosphere is so poisonous, the words may do more harm than good.

Anjum Naveed/AP
Pakistan's former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani salutes to media as he leaves after appearing before a judicial commission at the High Court in Islamabad, Pakistan on Monday. Pakistan's Supreme Court set up a judicial commission to investigate the secret memo scandal in response to a petition filed by group of opposition politicians.

The former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, embroiled in a political scandal and government power struggle that have him under virtual house arrest in Islamabad, might normally find comfort in the letters of support that prominent South Asia scholars and some members of Congress have written on his behalf.

Usually in cases involving a declared “strategic partner” that has received billions of dollars in US assistance, the kind of gentle warning the State Department issued to Pakistan last week that it is “watching and monitoring the situation closely” would be a boon to the individual in question.

But so poisoned are US-Pakistan relations, so unpopular and suspect is the US in Pakistan, that Mr. Haqqani’s connections to – and shows of support from – the US may if anything be working against him.

Haqqani was Pakistan’s well-viewed ambassador to Washington until November, when he was recalled to Islamabad over a letter the US government received purportedly seeking Washington’s help in reining in Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence apparatus. (Ambassador Haqqani was featured at a Monitor-hosted breakfast, at which he gave a spirited defense of his country’s dealings with the US, the day he was summoned back to Islamabad.)

Haqqani, who is also a journalist and a former professor of international relations at Boston University, denied any role in the letter. But the uproar around the letter has evolved into what in Pakistan is called “memo-gate,” one of several political scandals under investigation by the Pakistani Supreme Court. Together they are threatening to bring down the country’s beleaguered civilian government.

In the meantime, Haqqani’s passport has been seized and he is not permitted to leave Islamabad, even though his wife remains in Washington.

Concerns in Washington over Haqqani’s treatment have prompted an outpouring of support.

First three US senators issued a statement expressing their concern over Haqqani’s “mistreatment” at the hands of Pakistani authorities.

“We are increasingly troubled by Ambassador Haqqani’s treatment since he returned home,” said Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois, Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, and John McCain (R) of Arizona. “We urge Pakistani authorities to resolve this matter swiftly and consistent with civilian rule of law and to prevent the judicial commission investigating Ambassador Haqqani from becoming a political tool for revenge against an honorable man.”

Days later a group of 16 regional scholars and former ambassadors sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, urging the US to remain vigilant to the Haqqani case “to ensure that [he] is not physically harmed and that due process of law is followed.”

In their letter, the experts warned that their information suggested that Haqqani could face threats to his life as sectors of the Pakistani government furious over the Washington memo attempt to exploit the case to their advantage.

Citing the concerns of Haqqani’s legal counsel, the group said it worried that “Haqqani could be picked up by Pakistan’s intelligence services and intimidated, and even possibly tortured, into providing a statement that suits their interests.”

Adding that the case “follows an ominous trend in Pakistan,” the group noted that segments of the Pakistani media have already condemned Haqqani as “guilty of treason,” and cited recent assassinations of prominent leaders (for example, a governor who spoke out against Pakistan’s blasphemy law) and of journalists who sought a more tolerant and democratic country.      

On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland hardened an earlier statement on the Haqqani case, saying the US expects the former Washington envoy “will be accorded all due consideration under Pakistani law and in conformity with international legal standards.”

She said that part of the reason for the tougher statement was “to make clear that we’re watching.”

Some experts caution, however, that Pakistan does not have an encouraging track record in terms of international legal standards and respect for universal human rights. And they add that, given the country’s intense anti-American atmosphere, it is uncertain that demands from the US for a respect for the rule of law in Haqqani’s case will be heeded.

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