Blanket immunity: Qureshi maintains Davis not eligible

Islamabad: Pakistan`s former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Wednesday asserted that US official Raymond Davis could not be granted "blanket immunity" as desired by the Americans, even as a report said that the two countries were close to resolving their tiff over the issue.

Qureshi, who is bitter over his replacement as the foreign minister, said he was prepared to testify, if he was called by the Lahore High Court that is hearing petitions in this case.

Five days after he skipped the swearing-in ceremony for the new cabinet after the ruling Pakistan People`s Party decided not to reallocate him the foreign affairs portfolio, Qureshi said he had been told at a briefing in the Foreign Office on January 31 that it would not be possible to grant blanket immunity to Davis.

His comments came as the Dawn newspaper said in a report that the government`s counsel is expected to testify on Davis` diplomatic status when the Lahore High Court reconvenes tomorrow.

The miffed PPP leader said this expert opinion was formulated at an inter-ministerial meeting held by the Foreign Office, the Interior Ministry and a "third institution" that he did not identify.

He said he concurred with this opinion and conveyed it to the core committee of the PPP during a meeting held the same day.

"I examined the documents placed before me and in my considered opinion, I agreed with the Foreign Office`s stand," he told a news conference.

He said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani agreed with his stance and informed parliament on February 3 that the issue of Davis is sub-judice and will be decided by a court of law.

Qureshi made it clear that he stood by his position on the issue of Davis, who was arrested after he gunned down two men in Lahore on January 27.

The Pakistani leadership`s rejection of repeated US demands to free Davis on the ground that he has diplomatic immunity has taken relations between the two countries to a new low.

The former minister also said he would present his views honestly if he is called to testify by the Lahore High Court, which is hearing several petitions related to Davis` diplomatic status.

"The Lahore High Court is hearing the matter and they may call me to testify… If they call me, I will say what is right with honesty," Qureshi said in response to pointed questions on Davis` diplomatic status.

"Maybe I will suffer for telling the truth. I may have to pay a higher price for telling the truth (but) the time has come for us to hold up our heads for the sake of national prestige and interests and pay the price," he said.

Qureshi said he was asked by the PPP`s leadership to "keep quiet" and issue no statements on the Davis case.

He then sought the Foreign Office`s advice on the matter and issued the Foreign Secretary only two directions ? "follow the international and national laws and dig out the facts".

Pakistan wants a solution to the issue of Davis but while keeping "justice, law and dignity of the people in mind", he said.

Pakistan also does not want confrontation or tensions and both Washington and Islamabad need to understand each other`s concerns while settling the issue of Davis, he added.

Asked about his meeting with US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, sent to Pakistan by the Obama administration to end the stalemate over the issue of Davis, Qureshi said he would convey the same opinion in such closed-door meetings as in public.

Qureshi made it clear that the PPP`s decision not to reallocate the foreign ministry to him was behind his decision to stay away from the swearing-on of the new cabinet on February 11.

He also acknowledged that he had been offered the water and power portfolio in the revamped cabinet.

Contending that he had "a vision and a direction" for Pakistan`s foreign policy, Qureshi said: "In these last three years, I have turned around the relationship with Afghanistan, I have brought India back to the (negotiating) table and I have enhanced the relationship with the US".

"So if you want me a minister, then let me continue to (be) where I am".

Despite facing scathing criticism from senior PPP leaders over the past few days, Qureshi said he remained committed to the party.

He said he was pained at hearing allegations by PPP leaders that he had sympathy for former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Qureshi also said he was hurt at being compared to late PPP leader Farooq Leghari, who sacked the government of slain former premier Benazir Bhutto in 1996.

"I am ready to present myself before PPP leaders and workers to answer these charges and to be judged. If I am found guilty, I can be hung upside down in Regal Chowk but don`t make allegations against me without any basis," he said.

Qureshi also dismissed reports of difference with Prime Minister Gilani, saying he had no complaints against the premier.

Media reports have suggested that the PPP`s top leadership decided not to reallocate the foreign affairs portfolio to Qureshi as he had not backed a move to grant diplomatic immunity to Davis in a bid to end the row with the US.

Qureshi also claimed that a meeting between him and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last year was not held following his reference to the Kashmir issue in a speech at the world body.

He claimed that he had agreed to India`s request for a meeting with Krishna on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September last year because he "wanted to take things forward" and usher in peace and progress in the region.

"But then I was asked whether there will be a reference to Kashmir in my UN speech," he said, without mentioning who had asked the question.

"I want to ask the people: will it be proper if there is no mention of Kashmir when Pakistan`s Foreign Minister speaks on the country`s foreign policy in the UN? Never," he said.

Qureshi contended that his stance on the Kashmir issue had been appreciated by the President, Prime Minister and leaders of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

He also contended that he was the first Pakistani leader to raise differences over the sharing of river waters with India`s leadership.

"I raised the water issue for the first time. Earlier talks under the composite dialogue were limited to the issue Wullar barrage-Tulbul navigation project," he said.

"I told Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the water problem is such a serious issue that if we don`t resolve it, it could become a source of tension between India and Pakistan in future. I brought water on the agenda of India-Pakistan dialogue," he added.

Qureshi also stood by the remarks he had made in the wake of his talks with Krishna in Islamabad in July last year.

The talks had ended inconclusively and Qureshi had sought to blame Krishna for the lack of headway in the parleys.