Memo saga heads in different direction

Syed Yahya HussainyAlthough the anti-PPP publicists have renewed their claims about Mansoor Ijaz’s version of events about the memo saga looking very believable, the ruling party remains confident that this will be just another example of over-enthusiastic PPP haters celebrating the government’s difficulties while using the shoulder of the judiciary.

“Already, what started out as an issue expected to bring down the Zardari government has been reduced to a ‘get Husain Haqqani’ campaign,” said one observer.

Instead of the facts about writing of the memo, the conduct of Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, and the memo commission’s insistence that he return to Pakistan instead of being allowed to record his statement by videoconference have now become the main topics of discussion.

Mansoor Ijaz has so far not handed over his BlackBerry handset for forensic examination, Haqqani’s illness has given him an additional reason besides personal security concerns to say he cannot return to Pakistan right now. And the issue of equal treatment for the two witnesses before the commission has yet to be settled by the Supreme Court.

Even the claim by anti-PPP hardliners that Haqqani’s missing BlackBerry handsets could pose a national security threat indirectly supports Haqqani’s position that his handsets could not be handed over even if found.

PPP supporters say that even after the subdued appearance of former ISI chief Lt General (r) Ahmed Shuja Pasha before the memo commission and the critical remarks by commission members about Haqqani, there is just not enough evidence to substantiate the story that is believed by few people other than those who have persisted with supporting Mansoor Ijaz’s stupendous claims.

The memo saga started unfolding in October last year, with some forces making it a high stakes game for the government. It slowed down in the middle and now towards its conclusion seems set to witness another twist with stakes rising for the other side and possibly Haqqani, government supporters say.

Haqqani has now thrown the ball in the court of the highest esteem, asking it to provide him equal treatment when it comes to deposing before the memo commission and facilitate him to do so through a video link from London or Washington. Sources say this move has the backing of the top PPP leadership, which wants to create a new issue that can be used in its long-running battle with the judiciary.

While on the face of it, the memo commission is asking questions about Haqqani’s alleged non-compliance with its orders, it has to be prepared for questions that might be asked about its impartiality, especially at the international level. The memo commission was tasked by the Supreme Court to collect evidence and it gave the facility of recording statement by video link to Mansoor Ijaz on grounds that his life would be threatened by travelling to Pakistan.

Now Haqqani has taken the same position, asking the Supreme Court to consider threats to his life equally seriously to the threats claimed by Mansoor Ijaz, a US national.

The Supreme Court will most likely hear Haqqani’s petition when his lawyer Asma Jahangir returns on April 16 from her travels abroad. Until then, the memo commission will most likely continue to push Haqqani’s lawyers to ask him to appear before the commission and demand other actions from Haqqani. The former ambassador, however, will seek protection of the age-old principle that the onus of proving guilt lies with the accusers and if guilt has not been proved and no legal criminal proceedings initiated against Haqqani, the memo commission’s findings have little significance except to generate media headlines.

In any case, legal experts point out that the commission is a fact-finding probe and not a court conducting a trial. Its job is to find out what may have happened and not to ascribe guilt or innocence as no FIR has been registered, no charges have been filed and it is not even clear if any law has been violated by anyone. After PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s emotional speech on his grandfather’s death anniversary reminding everyone that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was sentenced to death as a result of a wrong decision by the judiciary, the PPP is willing to engage in a legal-political battle with the judges of the superior courts.

It is in that background that Haqqani had written a letter to the chief justice, which has been kept confidential, though the court said that such letters should not be directly written to the court.

At the beginning of the memo case, a letter by a Pakistani-Canadian had been turned into a petition by the court. The ruling party plans on highlighting every incident where the judiciary’s attitude towards the PPP is different from that towards other parties, sources say.

Haqqani’s lawyers assert that the media trial against him even without any charges being filed or proof being put on record has created an extremely hostile environment for him in Pakistan. Hostility towards the former ambassador can be found among extremist groups as well as in the ranks of the state machinery, which would be expected to protect him. The then ISI DG, they say, rushed to judgement based on only one meeting with Mansoor Ijaz showing how vulnerable Haqqani might be upon immediate return to Pakistan.

Even during his statement, General Pasha did not go beyond reiterating what he had already said in his affidavit before the Supreme Court in January.

He offered no evidence independent of Mansoor Ijaz’s claims, which he says he believed.

He agreed with Haqqani’s lawyer during cross-examination that Mansoor Ijaz was anti-Pakistan and anti-ISI. While some may find comfort in Pasha appearing before the commission as a sign of the case building up against Haqqani, his statement added little to the claims of Mansoor Ijaz in terms of proving anything.

According to Haqqani’s lawyers, the memo commission has a huge issue at hand, which cannot be dealt with by making remarks about Haqqani’s refusal to appear in person or raising questions about his health. Contrary to the perceptions built up over the months, Mansoor Ijaz’s statement that was seen as the key to the whole issue had proved very weak and uncorroborated in terms of the law of evidence.

Mansoor Ijaz admitted that he had no email or BBM message from Haqqani regarding the memo and his entire claim rests on linking BBM messages to telephone conversations. In his own written statement, Haqqani has given a totally different account of the same phone calls, which he says were just a small part of hundreds of phone calls he made in May 2011.

General Pasha said in his cross-examination that while Mansoor Ijaz showed him BBM screen shots, he refused to hand over to him any evidence.

Several of Mansoor Ijaz’s statements before the commission have been challenged by people not directly connected to the memo affair, raising questions about whether memogate’s star witness has a habit of exaggerating and manipulating communication.

Former US president Bush’s adviser, David Frum, wrote an article in Newsweek and The Daily Beast saying Mansoor Ijaz had “lied” before the commission about sending him a legal notice over his criticism against the American businessman of Pakistani origin.

Haqqani’s lawyers say that the commission also has to decide if it can rely on the testimony of a witness who made some laughable claims during the proceedings. Many of such claims even the commission had to reject as unverified and unreliable. Take for example the transcripts of communication between US helicopters and Pakistani ATC on May 2, 2011, as well as claimed communication between two high offices in Pakistan. General Pasha effectively supported Haqqani’s written statement when he said that there was no likelihood of a coup in May 2011, contrary to the claims of Mansoor Ijaz.

It is also now becoming apparent that the commission might not go ahead with the idea of expensive forensics examination of Mansoor Ijaz’s BlackBerry handset. The head of the commission commented at one hearing that forensics examination is not required at this stage. Sources say most experts in London approached by the commission’s secretary expressed inability to verify the data as suggested by Mansoor Ijaz and widely believed by his supporters.

This is the reason that the commission is once again relying on putting pressure on Haqqani to voluntarily write to Research in Motion (RIM) to secure verification of Mansoor Ijaz’s data.

A valid question that arises from this demand is how anyone can order someone to do something that is meant to be voluntary and would RIM treat as voluntary a letter that is written under orders.

The memo commission had started its proceedings by targeting BlackBerry manufacturers, RIM, to provide it with data.

Mansoor Ijaz and his lawyer had claimed that RIM could provide all the records but it was discovered later that RIM does not maintain records of communications beyond three months. It seems on the issue of forensics too, the presumptions of those who wanted to hang Haqqani, and even President Asif Zardari, on the basis of examination of BlackBerry handsets are discovering that it might not be easy to prove Mansoor Ijaz’s claims through forensics either.

Meanwhile, Haqqani has submitted complete and unedited detailed itemised telephone bills for both his BlackBerry handsets for the entire year of 2011.

Lawyers say, these records prove his assertion that Mansoor Ijaz was a “peripheral” acquaintance and not a friend. For example, in May 2011, Haqqani’s phone bills show 875 incoming and outgoing phone calls on his two telephone numbers, only four of which are to or from Mansoor Ijaz’s number.

Similarly, there are 1,321 text and data items on the bills for May 2011, when Ijaz says he sent the disputed memo, and his number represents a miniscule part of these exchanges.

From the PPP’s point of view, Haqqani is just the right person to create negative perceptions about the judiciary at the international level. The former ambassador is widely supported in the US and western countries even though he has been criticised at home. The Supreme Court’s decision to bar him from travelling abroad was criticised by Haqqani’s international supporters, including the International Commission of Jurists.

Even if Haqqani fails to get the Supreme Court to support his request for recording statement by video link, the PPP leadership will be able to exploit this in creating negative perceptions about the judiciary internationally, sources claim.

On the face of it, Haqqani has simply sought legal redress by approaching the Supreme Court. The opportunity for him to seek the intervention of the Supreme Court was provided by the memo commission. In its proceedings on March 18, when Haqqani was present in London and had requested that his statement be recorded there and then, the commission had taken a position that it was the Supreme Court that had bound Haqqani to be present in Islamabad, and that the commission did not have the competence to undo that.

Thus the commission opened the gate for seeking further interpretation of the Supreme Court order of January 30, 2012. Haqqani might gain most by closing the chapter of memogate even if it entails coming to Pakistan and recording his statement. But the PPP leadership is relishing the opportunity of showing how its opponents rushed to judgement and involved the judiciary in the matter. The memo commission’s adverse remarks about Haqqani, his supporters say, will only benefit him in proving that the commission was predisposed negatively towards him.

Ironically, it is now the PPP leaders who want memogate to drag on so that there are more and more negative international comments about the judiciary and alleged violations of Haqqani’s rights are made an international issue to embarrass the party’s opponents.

This piece was published in Daily Times on 11 April 2012.

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