U.S. lawmakers call for withholding assistance to Pakistan over constitutional order and election fairness concerns

In a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the lawmakers requested the state department to assess if U.S.-origin security assistance had facilitated human rights violations in Pakistan

Published - November 19, 2023 10:49 pm IST - Islamabad

A group of 11 influential U.S. lawmakers have urged the Biden administration to withhold future assistance to Pakistan until Islamabad restores constitutional order and holds free and fair elections, it emerged on November 19.

In a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the lawmakers, which included Congresswoman Ilhan Omar requested the state department to assess if U.S.-origin security assistance had facilitated human rights violations in Pakistan.

“We further request that future security assistance be withheld until Pakistan has moved decisively toward the restoration of Constitutional order, including by holding free and fair elections in which all parties are able to participate freely,” they wrote.

Pakistan's moves to further strengthen the blasphemy law also figured prominently in the letter, which warned Secretary Blinken that the proposed changes would be used to further tighten the noose around smaller religious groups and minorities, the Dawn newspaper reported.

Seek restoration of constitutional order and rollback of blasphemy law changes in Pakistan, the Congress members said, “We are extremely concerned about the passing of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2023 which will strengthen the existing blasphemy law, which has historically been used to persecute religious minorities.” In the letter, the U.S. lawmakers pointed out that the bill, which is yet to be signed by President Joe Biden, was “passed in haste despite repeated calls from many lawmakers for a thorough parliamentary procedure”.

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where even unproven allegations can incite violence by mobs. According to the Centre for Social Justice — an independent group advocating for the rights of minorities — more than 2,000 people in Pakistan have been accused of committing blasphemy since 1987 till May this year, and at least 88 people killed by lynch mobs for similar allegations.

The letter pointed out that on August 16, eight days after the bill was passed in Pakistan's Parliament, a mob desecrated churches and set fire to homes of Christians in Jaranwala. It also referred to reported protests against the bill, including by the Shia community in Gilgit-Baltistan.

“Religious persecution remains rampant in Pakistan, and we are concerned about future restrictions on freedom of religion and belief should this Bill become law,” the lawmakers warned.

Besides Omar, the signatories of the letter include Frank Pallone Jr, Joaquin Castro, Summer Lee, Ted W Lieu, Dina Titus, Lloyd Doggett and Cori Bush.

In its latest report on Pakistan, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that “religious minorities were especially vulnerable to prosecution or violence based on blasphemy allegations” and “blasphemy cases remained a substantial threat to religious freedom”.

While acknowledging Pakistan’s significance as a long-standing ally, the letter stressed the need to address issues like restrictions on freedom of expression, speech, and religion, enforced disappearances, military courts and the harassment and arrest of political opponents and human rights defenders.

Addressing ongoing harassment and arrests, the lawmakers mentioned the cases against jailed prime minister Imran Khan as well, noting that he could potentially face the death penalty for allegedly violating the Official Secrets Act.

The letter also mentioned prominent Pakistani human rights lawyer Imaan Mazari who was taken from her home at 3 am in August without an arrest warrant after she spoke at a rally against enforced disappearances.

The lawmakers urged the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to send observers to hearings and other legal proceedings of human rights defenders and political dissidents, including for emblematic cases such as Khan and Mazari.

They also offered to work with Secretary Blinken to promote human rights, democracy, and stability in Pakistan.

However, it remains unclear how the state department will respond to these concerns and whether it will impact the dynamics of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, the report said.

In Washington, the focus on human rights violations underscores the delicate balance between geopolitical alliances and the promotion of democratic values on the global stage. The state department has been markedly careful while commenting on the current political situation in Pakistan, the Dawn report said.

The issue has been raised regularly at the state department’s daily briefings, where the spokesperson has carefully avoided making statements that could be interpreted as an expression of support for either the government or the opposition, it said.

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