Unease Grows in West as 65 Members of US Congress Urge Blinken to Push Pakistan on Democracy, Human Rights

By Jay Rover
US Capitol building in Washington DC. (Photo courtesy PAKPAC)
As the Biden administration watches the unfolding political crisis in Pakistan relatively indifferently, unease is growing in the US Congress. Several members of the US Congress have condemned the massive human rights violations, state repression, press freedom, and violent arrest of political workers.

The Pakistani American Political Action Committee (PAKPAC), a leading advocate for good governance and democracy in Pakistan, announced on May 18 that 65 Members of US Congress have sent a “powerful message” in a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on human rights and democratic backsliding in Pakistan.

Former prime minister Imran Khan has claimed that at least 25 people have died in the political violence, unprecedented in recent years, across the country following Khan’s arrest by the military from court premises in Islamabad on May 9. Angry mobs allegedly burnt the Lahore Corps Commander’s official residence in a bloody backlash following Khan’s arrest. Even though the government has denied Khan’s allegation of 25 deaths, some journalists even claim as many as 70 people might have died in incidents of shooting by police and Pakistan Army soldiers.

Khan says the authorities have arrested 7,500 political workers, including the entire PTI leadership. The military has announced to try the culprits involved in the attack on Corps Commander’s house in military courts, which has been condemned by international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.

Khan has accused General Asim Munir, a controversial choice of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif (who is currently absconding in the United Kingdom) of the powerful office of the army chief, of being the moving spirit behind the crackdown on him and his party. The sticking point between the military and its backed government and Khan is holding fresh elections. Khan is demanding fair and transparent elections while the government and its backers in Rawalpindi’s General Headquarters are resisting for very obvious reasons. Khan is leading all public opinion polls. Khan’s allegations and demands are shared by many in the West.

“Pakistan’s military leadership is going full throttle to sideline Imran Khan,” says Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute Director at Washington-based The Wilson Center. “National elections offer the best shot at an off ramp-but they won’t end the crisis, whether or not they happen on time,” he added in a Tweet.

According to PAKPAC, the letter, coauthored by Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) and Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), urges Secretary Blinken to prioritize the promotion and protection of democracy and human rights in Pakistan. “The letter comes at a critical moment – sent to Secretary Blinken merely days after the government of Pakistan arrested a former Prime Minister along with thousands of his supporters, throwing the nation into chaos and bringing out millions to the streets in protest,” said PakPAC in a statement posted on  Twitter. “This alarming turn of events has sparked immense concern amongst the Pakistani-American community and amplified the urgency for immediate action to protect democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press and human rights in Pakistan,” added the statement.

The letter sent to Secretary Blinken underscores the need for the United States to push Pakistan to curb democratic backsliding while also advocating for robust measures to protect human rights, freedom of speech, press freedom, and the rule of law.

“PAKPAC commends the Members of Congress who have shown exceptional leadership and dedication to democracy and human rights by signing the letter. Their commitment to safeguarding democracy and human rights in Pakistan is a testament to the power of collective action,” the statement added.

Asad Malik, president of the PAKPAC National Board, emphasized the importance of bipartisanship during this challenging time for Pakistani democracy, stating: “At this critical juncture, with the foundations of democracy in Pakistan under threat, it is heartening to see members of both parties uniting to express their deep concern and stand up for the principles we hold dear. The bipartisan support for this letter demonstrates the unwavering commitment of our elected officials to upholding democracy and human rights, regardless of our political differences.”

Over the past three weeks, PAKPAC has helped more than 2,000 Pakistani Americans write to their members of Congress encouraging them to sign the letter and pushing the Secretary of State to hold the government of Pakistan accountable on democracy and human rights.

“As PAKPAC, along with our community, stands united in this pursuit of justice and democratic values, we call upon Secretary Blinken and the United States government to lend their unwavering support to ensure a prosperous and democratic future for Pakistan,” the statement added.

Growing Concern in the West

Even though many leaders in the West who champion human rights, democracy and freedom of expression, are keeping deafening silence, others are raising their voices against the evolving dangerous situation in Pakistani. The White House and State Department have refused to condemn the state oppression, terming it an internal affair of Pakistan. They however have called for respect for Pakistan’s constitution, a vague advice to the authorities in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

The Pakistani community based in the West, especially the United States, whose overwhelming majority supports former prime minister Imran Khan, is worried and on edge. Thousands have staged dozens of protests across the US and Canada, demanding of their respective governments to press Shahbaz Sharif-led government, which enjoys the tacit backing of the Pakistan Army, to respect the constitutional rights of Pakistanis.

Glimpses of a protest in Tampa, FL. (Photos courtesy PTI Florida)

“I have a family back home and I am extremely worried about the well-being of my family,” said Zahid, who works at a grocery store in Queens, New York. “I support Imran Khan and feel that the Pakistani government and the military are repeating the same mistakes they committed in the late 1960s and early 1970s that lead to the creation of Bangladesh,” he added.

An increasing number of American, Canadian and British politicians are coming forward to condemn violence and to demand the restoration of democracy in Pakistan by holding fresh elections.

“Pakistan must make a crucial choice: embrace military leadership akin to Egypt or allow democracy to prevail,” said Mattias Martinsson, Founder and Chief Investment Officer at Tundra Fonder, a Sweden-based fund manager.

“Pakistan’s unelected, Western-backed coup regime is now threatening to try civilians in military courts, as it seeks to crush protests that support overthrown PM Imran Khan,” wrote Ben Norton, editor-in-chief of GeopoliticalEconomy.com on Twitter.

Let me give the Pakistani regime, which is army, unsolicited advice – if you plan to arrest all the opposition leaders, including Imran Khan, first arrest all the judges of the country. Otherwise, the world is laughing at you for your incompetence in carrying out a coup!”, wrote Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, which is Sweden’s oldest public research university which was founded in 1477.

Pakistani media houses are under tremendous pressure from the country’s secret agencies not to give coverage to Khan. Journalists and media persons have been put behind the bar. Imran Riaz Khan, a senior journalist and a known critic of the government, has been missing for the past several days and is widely believed to be in the custody of the military. Similarly, Akash Ram, a senior executive of Bol News TV channel has been missing for the past over a month and has not been produced despite court orders. Media is largely operating in an environment of fear.

“I really fear for the future of my country,” Zahid, the worker at Queens grocery store, told Pakistan Week. “I think if they harm Imran Khan or any more leaders or political workers, it could lead to civil war,” he feared. “But I doubt the US will do much because it has to rely on Pakistan’s military to safeguard its geostrategic interests. Human rights will certainly take a back seat here,” he added.

 

 

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