Ex-envoy at center of Pakistani scandal decries 'witch hunt'

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington — the focus of a scandal that threatens to topple the government in Islamabad — said Monday that he was caught up in a "witch hunt" against democracy.

As a judicial commission began investigating allegations that could lead to treason charges against him, Hussain Haqqani said in an interview that he'd done nothing wrong and — as he did in court Monday — denied any knowledge of an anonymous memo that pleaded for American support for the civilian government to head off a possible military coup.

"Some people want to have the right to judge the patriotism of civilians. Some have joined the witch hunt to keep democracy weak or even get rid of it if they can," Haqqani told McClatchy at the prime minister's heavily guarded official residence in Islamabad, where he's been staying because he fears for his safety.

Haqqani was forced to resign as envoy to Washington after the memo became public in October, and the ensuing Supreme Court case once again has drawn battle lines between the civilians and the military in Pakistan, where the armed forces have ruled for half the country's existence.

The rancor has further poisoned the image of the United States in Pakistan and jeopardized the possibility that the two nations can work together to end the war in neighboring Afghanistan. And it's virtually guaranteed a prolonged political crisis that's likely to divert attention from Pakistan's pressing economic and security troubles.

The allegations against Haqqani, who was a key adviser to President Asif Ali Zardari, reach to the very top of the government. The memo, which contained an offer to rein in Pakistan's military and spy agency, was delivered in May to the U.S. military leadership by Mansoor Ijaz, an enigmatic American businessman of Pakistani ancestry. Ijaz claims he was acting on Haqqani's instructions and that the ultimate authority behind the initiative was Zardari himself.

Summoned to Pakistan in November over the allegations, Haqqani has been under virtual house arrest, the courts having barred him from traveling abroad. In Washington, where Haqqani served for nearly four years, he was a high-flying diplomat known for his connections throughout U.S. political and the military circles, and he often appeared as a fluent advocate for Pakistan on American television screens.

Some credit him with keeping aid money and relations with the United States going as the anti-terrorism partnership between the countries foundered in recent years over charges that Pakistan was secretly supporting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Now Haqqani is holed up in a guest wing of the prime minister's residence, afraid that religious extremists or agents of Pakistan's military will kill him if he ventures out.

Pakistan's armed forces, used to controlling the crucial U.S. relationship, are thought to have deeply resented Haqqani's contacts and level of access in Washington. Democracy was restored in Pakistan in 2008, but the civilian government has been shaky and its relationship with the military fraught with tension.

Haqqani had advocated closer ties to Washington, and he was a strong critic of the army's role in politics and its policy of supporting jihadist groups, views that he set forth in a 2005 book, "Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military."

"I am being targeted for my views and beliefs on civil-military relations and U.S.-Pakistan ties," Haqqani said, "not because I did anything wrong."

The document that launched the so-called Memogate scandal was sent to the then-top U.S. military official, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a week after American forces killed Osama bin Laden in northern Pakistan. Its existence came to light, however, only after Ijaz published an article about it in October. Pakistan's activist Supreme Court soon took up the issue.

Ijaz, whose business interests include an investment firm, Crescent Investment Management, lives a jet-set lifestyle, mostly in Europe. He's been a frequent conservative commentator on American television on security issues, especially on Fox News, and has connections to the U.S. security establishment; his business associates include former CIA director James Woolsey.

The head of the Pakistani military's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, has told the court in writing that he met Ijaz and had "seen enough corroborative material to prove his version of the incident." Last month, the court appointed three judges to probe the allegations.

"I should not have been subject to a media trial," Haqqani said. "I should not have been declared suspect by a senior military official prior to the completion of an inquiry, on the say-so of one man, and I should not have been barred from travel abroad without any charges being filed against me."

He told the court Monday: "I have no knowledge of the origin, authenticity or purpose of the said memo," and complained that "so far, this is all smoke and mirrors."

The case is expected to turn on the word of Ijaz, who was thought to be in Switzerland. His lawyer, Akram Sheikh, said in court that Ijaz would appear next week but added that he feared for his safety in Pakistan and had received death threats.

Ijaz has been highly critical of Pakistan's military, but he met spymaster Pasha in London in October to hand over details of the memo. Sheikh said after the hearing that his client was "not an ISI man" and wanted to clear his name after Haqqani denied collaborating with him on the memo that's consumed Pakistani politics.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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