WASHINGTON: Twice in the last two days, the United States has publicly expressed its unhappiness with the incumbent government’s decision to use the blasphemy law against former prime minister Imran Khan and his team.
On Monday, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) raised this issue in its annual report, noting that “the new government under Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, which took office in April (2022), weaponised the country’s blasphemy laws against former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet members”.
The report pointed out that blasphemy cases in Pakistan “remained a substantial threat to religious freedom, as did the sort of mob violence that has long accompanied such accusations”.
USCIRF is a bipartisan panel with a congressional mandate to identify religious discrimination across the globe and to suggest actions to end the discrimination. The US administration often, but not always, implements the suggested move.
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The issue later came up for discussion again at a news briefing on Tuesday, when a journalist reminded US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel that the blasphemy charges resulted in an assassination attempt on Mr Khan. The journalist also asked if Washington would convey its concerns on the misuse of blasphemy laws to the Pakistani government as well.
“We strongly oppose laws that impede the ability of any individuals — irrespective of their national identity — to choose a faith, practice a faith, change their religion, not have a religion, or tell others about their religious beliefs and practices,” Mr Patel said.
In April 2022, the government charged the former prime minister and 150 others of violating the country’s blasphemy law for staging anti-government protests in Makkah.
The disputed charges stemmed from the heckling of Mr Sharif and his delegation by some Pakistani pilgrims during an official visit to Saudi Arabia.
Several videos circulating on social media showed people chanting “traitors” and “thieves” as Mr Sharif’s team members were performing Umrah.
Rights activists in Pakistan had dismissed the blasphemy charges as political victimisation, noting that move was meant to deter Mr Khan from organising anti-government protests.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan had also demanded the cases against the PTI leadership be withdrawn immediately. “No government or political party can afford to allow allegations of blasphemy to be weaponised against its rivals,” the rights watchdog said.
The 2023 USCIRF report called on Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy law, and until such repeal, enact reforms to make blasphemy a bailable offence, require evidence by accusers. The report also includes a review of US-Pakistan relations, pointing out that the United States has long considered Pakistan’s stability and security a foreign policy priority, making it one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid — more than $32 billion over the last two decades.
By the start of 2023, the US government had provided over $98 million in humanitarian assistance in response to the crisis caused by last summer’s devastating floods.
“Reports suggest that these dynamics may point to improvement in bilateral relations, long complicated by the two countries’ starkly differing agendas and interests vis-à-vis Pakistan’s neighbors in Afghanistan, India, and China,” USCIRF added.
Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2023