WASHINGTON: Eleven members of the US Congress, in a letter to US Secr­e­tary of State Anthony Blinken, have urged the Biden administration to withhold future US assistance to Pakistan, until the country restores constitutional order and holds free and fair elections.

The lawmakers requested a legal determination from the Department of State under the Leahy Laws and Section 502(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act to assess if US-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.

The country’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.

Nearly dozen Congress members, including Ilhan Omar, seek restoration of Constitutional order, rollback of blasphemy law changes

“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,” the lawmakers wrote.

They pointed out that the bill, which is yet to be signed by the president, was “passed in haste despite repeated calls from many lawmakers for a thorough parliamentary procedure.”

The letter also pointed out that on Aug. 16, eight days after the bill was passed, 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.

The move was initiated by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who is one of the champions of Muslim causes in the US Congress. Other signatories include Frank Pallone Jr, Joaquin Castro, Summer Lee, Ted W. Lieu, Dina Titus, Lloyd Doggett and Cori Bush.

Most of them are members of the progressive group within Congress, which played a key role in highlighting the Palestinian issue in Washington and also participates in protest meetings and rallies held to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

In its latest report on Pakistan, the US 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.”

The report also noted that the previous government in Pakistan had “weaponised the country’s blasphemy laws against former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet members”.

While acknowledging Pakistan’s significance as a long-standing ally, the lawmakers also 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 PTI chief Imran Khan as well, noting that he could potentially face the death penalty for allegedly violating the Official Secrets Act.

The letter also mentioned Imaan Mazari, a human rights lawyer, who was taken from her home at 3am without an arrest warrant after speaking at a rally against enforced disappearances.

The letter urged the US 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 Ms Mazari, Khadija Shah and Mr Khan.

“We believe that the United States can play a constructive role in supporting positive change, and it is our hope that our cooperation can contribute to a more just and equitable future for the people of Pakistan,” the lawmakers wrote.

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

However, it remains unclear how the US government, particularly the Department of State, will respond to these concerns and whether it will impact the dynamics of the US-Pakistan relationship.

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 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.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2023

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