Eleven Democrats in the House of Representatives are calling on the State Department to conduct a probe into human rights abuses inside Pakistan, with an eye toward restricting aid based on potential violations of the Leahy Act, according to a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Led by Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Greg Casar of Texas, the letter expresses “deep concern about the ongoing human rights violations in Pakistan,” which has been in a state of political crisis since the military-engineered removal of former Prime Minister Imran Khan last year. Khan was removed from office following a no-confidence vote organized by the military and his civilian opponents. The Leahy Law, as it’s often called, bars military assistance to government entities engaged in abuse.
According to a classified Pakistani intelligence document reported in August by The Intercept, the effort to remove Khan also came partly on the back of pressure from the U.S. government, which had been antagonized by what State Department diplomats privately called Khan’s “aggressively neutral” stance on the war in Ukraine.
“Pakistan is the fifth most populous country in the world and has been a major US military partner since the Cold War, but you wouldn’t know it from the scarce attention it gets in the halls of Congress,” said Aída Chavez, policy adviser at Just Foreign Policy and a former reporter for The Intercept. “This letter from Reps. Omar and Casar is a welcome change at a time when the Pakistani military is systematically crushing its political opposition with tacit US support. The bare minimum we should expect of Biden and the State Department is to ensure that security assistance to Pakistan is in line with the Leahy Law, and this letter makes that demand.”
The letter expresses concern over news reports that Khan, currently imprisoned and facing a secret trial, potentially faces the death penalty. Khan faces widely derided charges related to the handling of the cable implicating U.S. involvement in his ouster. The members of Congress urged the State Department to send representatives to monitor the trial of Khan and others under persecution.
“We are unable to ignore the persistent reports of human rights abuses including restrictions on freedom of expression, speech, and religion and belief, as well as enforced disappearances, military courts, and harassment and arrest of political opponents and human rights defenders,” the Democrats write. “These violations not only violate the fundamental rights of the Pakistani people but also undermine the principles of democracy, justice, and rule of law.”
Reps. Cori Bush, André Carson, Joaquin Castro, Lloyd Doggett, Summer Lee, Ted Lieu, Jim McGovern, Frank Pallone, and Dina Titus also signed on.
The crackdown on Khan and his party, highlighted by the letter to the State Department, has entailed widespread arrests, disappearances, torture, and targeted killings of his supporters and Pakistani civil society in general. Citizens of Western countries, including U.S. citizens, have been caught up in this crackdown and imprisoned on allegations of taking part in demonstrations in support of Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. “[W]e remain concerned about the ongoing harassment and arrests of political opponents, including members of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, and human rights defenders who are charged with bogus cases to trample their right to free speech. Such acts of harassment do not only impact individuals, but deeply traumatize their families. This includes the former Prime Minister Imran Khan,” the letter reads.
The letter’s signatories, particularly Omar, are often accused of expressing concern around human rights abuses only when they are committed by Israel. But her criticism of Pakistan adds to the regular alarm she raises around abuses carried by, for instance, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Pakistani military has relied for decades on a steady stream of U.S. security and financial assistance to maintain its privileged place in the country’s ruling establishment. During both the Cold War and the U.S. war on terror, the military has sought to serve as an ally to U.S. security interests even as the two countries have clashed over issues like Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban. The U.S. government recently helped broker a much-needed bailout from the International Monetary Fund for Pakistan’s government after coming to an agreement to purchase arms for the military for use by the Ukrainian military in its war with Russia.
The possible cessation of this crucial U.S. support could be devastating to the Pakistani military. The country is expected to have elections next year, but Khan, the country’s most popular political leader, has been imprisoned and barred from participation. The letter from Congress targets this lifeline directly, warning that if some semblance of normalcy is not returned to Pakistani politics, along with the participation of Khan himself, the military may be in danger of losing its privileged relationship with the U.S. and the largesse that come along with it.
“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,” the letter reads. “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.”
Correction: November 17, 2023, 10:45 a.m.
Joaquin Castro, a House member, signed the letter — not Julián Castro, his brother.