ISLAMABAD – The chief witness in a secret memo scandal that threatens to bring down the Pakistani president will not travel to the country to testify, claiming the government has set a trap to prevent him from leaving, his lawyer said Monday.
Mansoor Ijaz has instead offered to record his testimony and submit it to a Supreme Court commission investigating the scandal, said attorney Akram Sheikh. Ijaz, a U.S. businessman of Pakistani origin, was scheduled to travel to Islamabad to appear before the commission on Tuesday but has bickered with the government over who will guarantee his safety.
Ijaz has accused the Pakistani government of orchestrating an unsigned memo that he delivered to the U.S. last year asking Washington to help stop a supposed military coup following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Pakistani government has denied any involvement.
It’s unclear how the commission will respond to Ijaz’s refusal to travel to Pakistan. His testimony is seen as vital, and anything that interferes with the judges’ fully quizzing him could hinder their investigation into the scandal.
The memo affair has rattled the civilian leadership at a time when it is beset by an array of crises, including a struggling economy, a violent Taliban insurgency and a separate tussle with the Supreme Court over old corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari.
The army was outraged by the memo and denied it ever intended to carry out a coup. It successfully pushed the Supreme Court to investigate against the wishes of the government, which said the matter was already being probed by the parliament.
Ijaz has claimed the Supreme Court commission ordered the military to guarantee his security while in Pakistan, but the government has said the Interior Ministry was responsible. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has warned Ijaz could be prevented from leaving the country.
“It seems like a well-orchestrated trap to hold Mansoor Ijaz indefinitely in Pakistan,” said Sheikh, his lawyer.
The army assigned one officer to Ijaz’s security detail at the request of the government, said Attorney General Anwarul Haq.
But this was clearly not enough to assuage the witness’ concerns.
Ijaz has accused the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, of crafting the memo with Zardari’s support. Haqqani resigned in the wake of the scandal, but both he and the president have denied any connection to the letter. The Supreme Court has prevented the former envoy from leaving the country while it is investigating.
Haqqani’s lawyer, Zahid Bokhari, filed a petition with the commission asking it to turn down Ijaz’s request to record his statement.
“If he does not come to Pakistan, he has something to hide, instead of something to reveal,” said Bokhari.
Government supporters have accused Ijaz of acting at the behest of the country’s powerful army, something both have denied. They have also questioned Ijaz’s credibility.
Those questions intensified last week after a music video surfaced in which Ijaz acted as a ringside commentator for a female wrestling match in which both women eventually ripped off their bikinis — a shocking image in conservative Pakistan. Ijaz claimed he didn’t know there would be nudity in the video.
One of the reasons the memo scandal has generated so much controversy is rampant anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. The letter offered to replace Pakistan’s national security leadership with people favourable to the U.S. in return for help from Washington in stopping the supposed coup.
The U.S. has provided Pakistan with billions of dollars in military and economic aid in return for support in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida, but relations have always been defined by a lack of trust.
The raid that killed bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town heightened that mistrust. Pakistan was outraged it was not told about the operation beforehand, and U.S. officials questioned how bin Laden was able to live near Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point for years.
The relationship deteriorated further late last year after American airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two Afghan border posts. Islamabad retaliated by closing its border crossings to supplies for NATO troops in Afghanistan and kicking the U.S. out of a base used by American drones.
Drone strikes have been a source of tension because they are widely perceived in Pakistan as mostly killing civilians, a claim denied by the U.S. Washington held off on carrying out drone attacks in Pakistan for more than six weeks after the errant airstrikes on Nov. 26.
But the drone attacks have since resumed. Missiles struck a house and a vehicle in Deegan village in the North Waziristan tribal area on Monday, killing four alleged militants, said Pakistani intelligence officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The U.S. refuses to speak publicly about the drone program, but American officials have said privately that the strikes have killed many senior Taliban and al-Qaida commanders.
Although Pakistan is widely believed to have supported the strikes in the past, that co-operation has become strained as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad in Islamabad and Rasool Dawar in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
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