Even at the best of times, he is known to be acerbic and pungent as they come, his anti-India vitriol alarming to the uninitiated. But last month, Pakistan's UN envoy, Munir Akram, directed his bile at his live-in girlfriend and in the process earned a big, black eye for his country. His dreadful conduct took the wind out of Pakistani sails as Islamabad began its tenure as a non-permanent member of the Security Council—and just as it was gearing to deliver some good rhetorical punches there on behalf of the world's Muslims. What could be more un-Islamic than a relationship outside wedlock which under Shariah is punishable by Taliban-style retribution?
Akram's stars plunged precipitously as New York's tabloids screamed details of Pakistan's "diplo-basher" and "abuser". The US State Department asked Islamabad to withdraw his diplomatic immunity so he could face criminal prosecution as a common man. The Pakistani establishment didn't know what hit them, struggling, as they were, with other difficult aspects of their tortuous relationship with Uncle Sam—border shootings and bombs dropping from American planes. They didn't need a new complication from one of their own. The famed corridors of the United Nations were suddenly abuzz with talk of Akram's physical, not verbal, violence.
In Indian diplomatic circles, Munir Akram is infamous for his rabid rhetoric against New Delhi. Kashmir or nukes, Akram's visceral anti-India tirades are legion. In fact, the Brothers Akram—Munir and Zamir (who was earlier posted in India)—are known for the poisonous missiles they launch regularly at India. Munir, as spokesman of his foreign office, once called Salman Khursheed "kirai ka Muslim".
But first the facts. On the morning of December 10, Akram's girlfriend, Marijana Mihic (pronounced Mariana), called the emergency 911 number at 1.36 am, asking for help. She told the police dispatcher that a man, whom she identified as her husband, had smashed her head into a wall. She said that her arm also was hurting and that he was a repeat offender. The dispatcher noted, "female caller states husband has diplomatic immunity". When the NY police arrived, guns on the ready and red light flashing, at the posh address in the upper reaches of Manhattan, Mihic changed her story a bit and said that Akram, 22 years her senior, was her "boyfriend". She had tried to leave after a heated argument but he grabbed her and she fell. Police officers noticed a bruise on her head but she declined a visit to the hospital.
Akram reluctantly identified himself to the police as Pakistan's UN ambassador. The police had no choice but to leave quietly in the face of the ultimate diplomatic perk—immunity from local laws. His press spokesman, Mansoor Suhail, told Outlook: "It was a minor incident blown out of proportion by some people. They continue to be friends. There would be no basis for a legal case when there is no complaint filed."
Unfortunately for Akram, the American criminal justice system works a little differently. Even if a victim doesn't file a complaint, the system can. Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau is prepared to press misdemeanour assault charges once the diplomatic immunity is lifted. After all, pushing the case is none other than Majorie Tiven, the city commissioner in charge of UN, and a member of the powerful and wealthy Bloomberg family. In fact, Tiven is New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's sister and a social worker by training. On December 26, she wrote to the US mission at the UN, asking that Akram's immunity be waived. The request was forwarded to Washington, and two days later the State Department sent the summons to Pakistan.
Akram has never swum rougher seas. Suhail denied there was any deadline for Islamabad to lift Akram's immunity or to even respond to the Americans.But conventional wisdom at the UN is that Pakistan has little choice but to withdraw him, because for all practical purposes, Akram is compromised. "If he doesn't go, there'll always be this Damocles' sword hanging over him. He's been rendered ineffective," said a diplomat. There's already talk that Akram would be recalled soon.
Akramgate couldn't have come at a better time for the Americans who anticipate trouble in the Security Council on Iraq. Pakistan and Syria, the two Muslim countries on the Council, will feel duty-bound to oppose the war on Iraq for domestic reasons. Akram is said to be a master of the UN game—citing arcane rules, using dilatory tactics, creating distractions by proposing alternate resolutions. That the Americans chose to pursue the complaint against Akram shows it was a "pre-emptive strike"—a bit of hardball that keeps the pressure on Islamabad. As Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, acknowledged last week: "There are a variety of ways these things have been handled (in the past). And let's face it, it goes all the way from driving problems to espionage, the kinds of situations that arise. And sometimes, we can ask the person to leave."
The Big Apple took the bite out of Akram's armour. A veteran of multilateral diplomacy, he served for seven years in Geneva as Pakistan's permanent representative to the UN before taking on the assignment in New York last May. He came alone, having separated from his American wife two years ago, and suffered the loss of a grown son who reportedly fell from the balcony of a high-rise. The UN's Blue Book lists him as single, according to a well-informed source. He soon met Mihic, a 35-year-old to Akram's mature 57, and they started appearing at parties. A New Yorker told a Pakistani paper that Mihic regularly acted as his hostess and "was all over him, declaring her love for him" loudly.
Both Munir and Zamir, who is now ambassador to Nepal, have made their reputation on the one thing that serves Pakistani diplomats well—loud anti-India rhetoric. They have successfully parleyed their bellicosity to endear themselves to the army establishment. Two days after taking his post in NY, Munir Akram threatened the use of nuclear weapons against India. "India should not have the license to kill with conventional weapons while Pakistan's hands are tied regarding other means to defend itself," he said. In Geneva, he regularly accused India of harbouring the lowest of low intentions against Pakistan because it declined to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in the mid-1990s. Says G. Parthasarthy, India's former high commissioner to Pakistan: "In my view, the senior diplomats of the 1980s like Niaz Naik, Riaz Piracha, Humayun Khan and Shahryar Khan were sophisticated people who could put their view points without being abrasive." But the later crop led by the Akram brothers, Riaz Khokhar and Shamshad Ahmed went to another school, one where more bile means more clout with the army and the ISI.