Rights activists in Pakistan have condemned the blasphemy charges against Imran Khan, who also survived an assassination attempt in early November 2022.
The United States has officially expressed its opposition to the incumbent PDM 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.
In April 2022, authorities charged the former prime minister and 150 others of violating the country’s draconian blasphemy law for staging anti-government protests in Makkah, Saudi Arabia
The disputed charges stemmed from the heckling of prime minister Shehbaz Sharif and his delegation by some Pakistani pilgrims during an official visit to Saudi Arabia.
On November 3, 2022, Imran Khan and his fellow Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leaders were shot at in Wazirabad, while their ‘Haqeeqi Azadi March’ was en route from Lahore to Islamabad. The would-be assassin turned out to have a grudge against Khan for allegedly committing blasphemy and exploiting Islam for his own political motives. The assassination attempt is still under investigation, as PTI alleges that the authorities are not being impartial or judicious in their inquiries.
The issue of blasphemy cases in Pakistan later came up for discussion again on Tuesday, when a journalist reminded US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel that charges under the blasphemy law had resulted in an assassination attempt on former Pakistani premier Imran 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,” Patel said.
Rights activists in Pakistan have condemned the blasphemy charges against Khan and other PTI leaders as political victimisation, noting that move was meant to deter Khan from organising anti-government protests. It must also be noted that the mere accusation of blasphemy carries the risk of extrajudicial murder at the hands of a vigilante in Pakistan.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) also demanded that blasphemy cases against PTI leadership be withdrawn immediately. “No government or political party can afford to allow allegations of blasphemy to be weaponised against its rivals,” the HRCP said.
Meanwhile, former federal minister for human rights and central PTI leader Dr Shireen Mazari tweeted a news report on the US urging Pakistan to rescind the blasphemy cases against Khan. Mazari said that the US position exposed the “dirty tricks” of the PDM government and its “handlers internationally”.
Netizens were quick to point out Dr Mazari’s volte face on US involvement in internal Pakistani affairs. But it was inevitable, as the PTI is moving to mend its reputation in the US after blaming it for a “regime change conspiracy” in Pakistan for the better part of 2022. In May last year, Dr Mazari called for UN intervention to overturn the blasphemy cases registered against PTI leaders.
Earlier in December 2018, while a cabinet member in the PTI government, Dr Mazari had accused the US of “pure political blackmailing” when it added Pakistan to a religious freedoms blacklist.
Back then, Dr Mazari blamed the US for not taking cognizance of the Kartarpur initiative, and of the variety of churches operating in Pakistan. She had also lamented that the US was ignoring the plight of religious minorities in India as it singled out Pakistan for listing.