High drama in the sky

Published March 7, 2010

OF the two principal characters involved in the nerve-racking drama on the evening of October 12, 1999, when the fate of 198 passengers on board flight PK 805 hung in the balance, one was supposed to be a paragon of virtue, the other a scoundrel. Author Aminullah Chaudry has tried to prove that both were great scoundrels. One was a household name, Nawaz Sharif; the other name would hit world headlines when he threw in Pakistan's lot with America in the war on terror — Pervez Musharraf.

Leaf after leaf seems to come straight from a page-turner. Here is a dialogue between flight PK 805 and the air traffic control tower at Karachi

Tower Please convey to the Chief that this is Gen. Iftikhar. I would like to speak to him.

PK 805 Standby, we will get the General.... Iftikhar this is Pervez. Where is Usmani?

Tower Sir, Iftikhar is on the set. Gen. Usmani is in the VIP lounge. He is waiting at the gate for you. I am here at the con tower.

PK 805 Iftikhar, what is the problem?

Tower I am sure you would not know. About two hours back your retirement was announced and you were to be replaced by Zia. The army has taken over and they were trying to divert your plane, so that it doesn't land here. We have taken over the airport and you are coming in now.

PK 805 Iftikhar, thank you. Tell Mahmood and Aziz nobody will leave the country.

There is more of this drama across the book as apoplectic, nervous wrecks in Islamabad and Karachi exchanged angry messages full of mutual suspicion and often contempt. More importantly neither the givers nor takers of the orders were sure if they were acting professionally, ethically and legally.

The only person who was sure of himself was the author — the then director general of civil aviation. All through the book Chaudry hammers one point he obeyed the orders of an elected prime minister.

Well versed in civil aviation law, Chaudry says that under clause 62(2) of Civil Aviation Rules, 1994 he had the right to close the airport as ordered by Sharif. The prime minister rang him up personally twice in 15 minutes and told him categorically that the plane carrying Musharraf should not land in Pakistan — it could go to any Middle Eastern airport, except Dubai. Chaudry makes his position clear 'There was no doubt in my mind that I was duty bound to carry out the orders of the chief executive'.

Both the prosecution and Sharif's lawyers bungled — the former when the army arrested Chaudry; the latter when the case came up before the anti-terrorism court (ATC) headed by Judge Jafferi. A day after the coup, the CAA director was arrested and harassed to the point of torture and denied the medical care he deserved as a heart patient.

But one day a 'polite' ISI officer came to him and told him that he was being interrogated because he would have to serve as star witness for the prosecution.

According to the author, the brains behind Sharif's defence strategy were bad lawyers who not only contradicted each other, but also reversed their position when the defence went in appeal to the Sindh High Court after conviction by Judge Rehmat Jafferi, who sentenced the former prime minister to two life terms.

In the ATC the defence team argued that Sharif never gave the order for closing the airport. In the high court they staged a somersault and accepted that Sharif did indeed order the closure of the airport in order to deny landing to flight PK 805.

As prime minister, the defence lawyers said, Sharif had every right to consolidate his political position if he felt threatened by the army chief. Didn't Bhutto, they argued, dismiss two service chiefs in one day to strengthen his power?

The author's criticism of Judge Jafferi is harsh, and he points to several flaws in the prosecution's case. First, the FIR was registered 28 days after the alleged crime was committed.

Second 'hijacking' was never part of Pakistan's anti-terrorism law and was added to the law after October 12, 1999, with retrospective effect. Judge Jafferi, the author says, seemed not to have taken this into account.

The pilot too gets his share of criticism as the author accuses him of falsifying the fuel position and climbing up while returning from Nawabshah — something Chaudry says wasted rather than saved fuel.

Aside from the 'hijacking from the ground' drama, the book gives the reader an insight into the world of Pakistan's unwieldy and highly politicised bureaucracy, mutual antipathies, the clashes of personality and the monopolisation of CAA jobs by the Pakistan Air Force.

The author informs readers of the tacit hostility he faced from the PAF-CAA establishment because he was a civilian director general, as well as the distrust which Sharif had developed for him over the Islamabad and Lahore airport projects.

The author ought to revise some earlier portions of his book for he has made some extremely unpalatable remarks about his colleagues.

He accuses his secretary of virtually taking over as CAA director general. If this really was the case, it is less a reflection on his wing commander-secretary.

For a book published in Britain it is poorly edited, especially the punctuation part of it. The transcripts of the messages add to the book's utility as research material. There is no index.

Hijacking from the Ground
The bizarre story of PK 805
By Aminullah Chaudry
AuthorHouse, UK
ISBN 978-1-4490-1702-6
350pp. $11.60



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