US hypocrisy to the fore
IMRAN Khan is, according to numerous opinion polls, the most popular politician in Pakistan and may very well be the country's next prime minister. He is also a vehement critic of US drone attacks on his country, vowing to order them shot down if he becomes premier and leading an anti-drone protest march last month.
Last Saturday, Imran boarded a flight from Toronto to New York in order to appear at a fundraising lunch and other events. But before the flight could take off, US immigration officials removed him from the plane and detained him for two hours, causing him to miss the flight. On Twitter, Khan reported that he was "interrogated on [his] views on drones" and then added: "My stance is known. Drone attacks must stop." He then defiantly noted: "Missed flight and sad to miss the fundraising lunch in NY, but nothing will change my stance."
The State Department acknowledged Imran's detention and said: "The issue was resolved. Mr Khan is welcome in the United States." Customs and immigration officials refused to comment except to note that "our dual mission is to facilitate travel in the United States while we secure our borders, our people and our visitors from those that would do us harm like terrorists and terrorist weapons, criminals and contraband," and added that the burden is on the visitor "to demonstrate that they are admissible" and "the applicant must overcome all grounds of inadmissibility." There are several obvious points raised by this episode. Strictly on pragmatic grounds, it seems quite ill-advised to subject the most popular leader in Pakistan - the potential next prime minister - to trivial, vindictive humiliations of this sort. It is also a breach of the most basic diplomatic protocol.
Just imagine the outrage if a US politician were removed from a plane by Pakistani officials in order to be questioned about their publicly expressed political views. And harassing prominent critics of US policy is hardly likely to dilute antiUS animosity; the exact opposite is far more likely to occur.
But the most important point here is that Imran's detention is part of a clear trend by the Barack Obama administration to harass and intimidate critics of its drone attacks. As Marcy Wheeler notes: "This is at least the third time this year that the US has delayed or denied entry to the US for Pakistani drone critics."
Last May, I wrote about the amazing case of Mohammad Danish Qasim, a Pakistani student, who produced a short film titled The Other Side, which "revolves around the idea of assessing social, psychological and economical effects of drones on the people in tribal areas of Pakistan".
As he put it: "The film takes the audience very close to the damage caused by drone attacks" by humanising the tragedy of civilian deaths and also documenting how those deaths are exploited by actual terrorists for recruitment purposes.
Qasim and his co-producers were chosen as the winner of the Audience Award for Best International Film at the 2012 National Film Festival For Talented Youth, held annually in Seattle, Washington.
He intended to travel to the US to accept his award and discuss his film, but was twice denied a visa to enter the US and was barred from making any appearances in the US.
The month before, Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents drone victims in lawsuits against the US and the co-founder of the Pakistani human rights organisation, Foundation for Fundamental Rights, was scheduled to speak at a conference on drones in Washington. He, too, was denied a visa and the Obama administration relented only once an international outcry erupted.
There are two clear dynamics driving this. First, the US is eager to impose a price for effectively challenging its policies and to pre- vent the public - the domestic public, that is - from hearing critics with first-hand knowledge of the impact of those policies. As Wheeler asks: "Why is the government so afraid of Pakistanis explaining to Americans what the drone attacks look like from a Pakistani perspective?" This form of intimidation is not confined to drone critics. Last April, I reported on the serial harassment of Laura Poitras, the Oscar-nominated documentarian who produced two films - one from Iraq and the other from Yemen - that showed the views and perspectives of America's adversaries in those countries.