Gallows cast shadow over prince's Pakistan visit

Prince Charles had to raise case of Mirza Tahir Hussain during first official visit to Pakistan, but diplomats would probably have been happier if he hadn't.

In the splendid all-white fourth floor surroundings of President Pervez Musharraf's official residence in Islamabad yesterday, Prince Charles had one of the more delicate tasks of his first official visit to Pakistan. After chatting about the war on terrorism and last autumn's earthquake, there was the small matter of life or death to raise: the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain, the Briton who has been on Pakistan's death row for the last 18 years and is currently due to hang around the end of the year.

The prince had to do it, but diplomats would probably have been happier if he hadn't. They have been working quietly for years to secure a reprieve for Mr Hussain and fear that any publicity in the case will work against their efforts.

They had even persuaded Mr Hussain's brother not to come to Pakistan to plead his case while the prince was visiting the country. Any whiff of outside pressure, they believe, especially from Britain, could be counterproductive for Mr Hussain, convicted of killing a taxi-driver when he was 18.

Unfortunately for the strategy, the case was highlighted recently by Tony Blair in the House of Commons and somehow the prince's concern over Mr Hussain's fate, to the extent of writing a private letter about it to the Pakistan president, had also surfaced.

There had even been a public statement - discounted yesterday, of course - that the prince's visit might be cancelled if the execution went ahead on schedule while he was in the country.

The prince did indeed raise the matter with the president, but nothing more was said about it by his staff. The stay of execution remains, while the Pakistan legal authorities establish whether for the first time in the country's history, the president can commute a death sentence passed by a sharia court.

British contortions over the issue partially overshadowed the first day of the prince's visit, which was supposed to be taken up with diplomatic courtesy calls, first to the president and then to the prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, not to mention an evening reception hosted by the high commissioner, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, attended by the cream of Pakistani society, including the former cricketer Imran Khan.

Last night, a planned visit to a madrasa Islamic school in Peshawar by the prince and Camilla was cancelled on the advice of the Pakistani government owing to security fears and the threat of angry demonstrations.

The prince's five-day visit is primarily intended to emphasise the closeness of the ties between Britain and Pakistan, the cooperation offered by the latter in the war on terrorism and the aid and help provided by the former in development assistance to help Pakistan fully join the other Asian tiger economies. There is also the matter of £120m in reconstruction funding after last year's earthquake.

Charles was on safer ground as he toured an exhibition promoting Pakistan business enterprise, held in a marquee in the prime minister's front garden. It enabled him once again to extol the work of the Prince's Trust, which provides financial back-up and advice for young people wanting to set up their own businesses, as he launched a similar project for Pakistan called Youth Business International.

He even brought along two young English entrepreneurs who have been helped by the trust in Britain. One, Razia Anwar from Blackburn, spotted a gap in local skin care provision and launched a centre specialising in laser hair removal with the help of a £5,000 grant.

The prince was highly praised by Mr Aziz, who hoped the royal couple would live happily ever after. In return, the prince lugubriously remarked that he had been flattered when Mr Aziz visited him in London to discuss the trust's work. "The prime minister actually listened to what I was talking about. Normally that doesn't happen, I am telling you." Charles said : "For my wife and I it really is the greatest possible joy to be in Pakistan. It's taken me nearly 58 years to reach here, not for want of trying."

Despite the British anxieties about Mr Hussain's fate, the official spokesman for the Pakistani prime minister said they were relaxed about finding a way through the legal minefield. "We don't feel any pressure. We are always under pressure," he said.


Stephen Bates

The GuardianTramp

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