"The United States," sighed a well-heeled, US-educated Arab businessman, "has two dictionaries: one for internal consumption and one for external use. Words like democracy and justice mean different things, depending on which dictionary you use." It is a perception widely shared across the Muslim world and one that steadily undermines US efforts to recruit moderate Muslim opinion in its support. While Washington argues that it is promoting democracy, freedom and justice, from the ground the US is seen to pursue its own interests, regardless of justice or even of legality.
The arrest in Pakistan of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, an event described by the head of the congressional intelligence committee as akin to the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation, gave Washington a much needed victory in the war on terror.
But in Pakistan, where this historic event actually took place, confusion reigns over who did what to whom and on what judicial basis. The authorities claimed Mohammed was arrested in a police raid in Rawalpindi.
The official account described a police raid that was the culmination of a long investigation and resulted in the arrest of several suspects who were being interrogated by Pakistani police. The story appears to be almost entirely fictional: the house of a respected micro-biologist had been raided and his son arrested, but according to another family member Mohammed was not in the house; nor did the intelligence officers who kicked the door in even ask for him. They claim Mohammed must have been detained elsewhere and that the raid on the Rawalpindi house was a smokescreen.
After several denials, it was admitted by the Pakistani authorities that Mohammed had been removed from Pakistan by US authorities. The Rawalpindi police admitted that they had neither participated in the raid nor known about it. Why should such niceties matter, as long as a dangerous terrorist is no longer at large? Ends, surely, justify means when the stakes are high? It's a tempting but, as the British discovered in Ireland, a misguided argument.
One of the heinous acts attributed to Mohammed is the murder of Daniel Pearl. According to intelligence briefings, his was the hand that cut Pearl's throat, a murder for which the British-born militant Omar Saeed Sheikh has already been sentenced to death in Pakistan. The story of Sheikh's "arrest" was also clouded with inconsistencies. He had been involved in a string of terrorist acts and had served time in an Indian jail. He was released in a hostage swap, returned to Pakistan and apparently continued his activities without undue interference from Pakistani intelligence.
After Pearl's murder and following the detention of several members of his family, Sheikh gave himself up to a former director of Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency, and remained under his protection for the best part of a week. What transpired during that week has never been revealed, but at the end of it President Musharraf, conveniently on a visit to Washington, announced the "arrest" of Pearl's murderer. Only then did US officials have access to him.
He allegedly confessed, then withdrew his confession. He was tried and convicted on flimsy evidence. So shaky was the prosecution case that, when two further witnesses led the authorities to Pearl's body, the court ignored their evidence. The prosecution, anxious to avoid any contradictory evidence, preferred to stick to the story already before the court. Formal identification of the body was strangely delayed until the trial was over.
If the prosecution case was full of holes, nobody was terribly interested. Sheikh, after all, had form and seemed to be involved in some way. It was politically important both to the Americans and the Pakistanis to get a result.
Sheikh's trial was held in secret and neither the nature and extent of his relationship with the ISI nor the content of his pre-arrest discussions with the ISI were ever revealed. For the authorities, the case proved that the guilty had been punished. For the wider public in Pakistan and elsewhere, it demonstrated that judicial process, truth and accountability were pretty elastic concepts where powerful interests were in play.
If there were secrets to be kept in the Sheikh case, how many more might be buried in the story of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a man unlikely to see a public trial in any country? Perhaps the authorities are telling the truth about his arrest. But even if they were, many would rather believe in a conspiracy or a cover-up, just as they prefer to believe that Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with September 11. And if the poor and weak are prone to embrace unlikely conspiracies, perhaps it is in part because they see little reason to trust in the proclaimed virtues of law and order, democracy and judicial process that so rarely seem to be made to work for them.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003