Members Of Congress Demand Biden Withhold Recognition of Coalition Claiming Power in Pakistan

US

More than two dozen members of Congress sent a letter to the Biden administration on Wednesday calling for consequences and accountability in Pakistan following what has been widely viewed as a fraudulent election there earlier this month.

The letter, spearheaded by Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, calls on the U.S. government to withhold recognition of the new Pakistani government barring a “thorough, transparent, and credible” review of the circumstances of the February 8 election. The letter also demands accountability for political prisoners and calls for the U.S. to cease military and other cooperation with Pakistan unless authorities there comply with human rights law and respect democratic outcomes.

Sent to President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the letter was signed by 31 members of Congress. The time to collect signatures on the letter was short, Casar said, as a coalition of Pakistani political parties rushed to form a government with military backing following the election. Though a clear majority of Pakistanis voted in favor of candidates aligned with former Prime Minister Imran Khan, authorities manipulated the results, allowing Khan’s opponents to form a coalition.

Pakistan has been in a state of political paralysis since the vote, with supporters of Khan and media organizations around the world condemning the election as fraudulent. In the months preceding the election, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment engaged in a fierce crackdown on Khan and his supporters that has included widespread arrests, killings, and allegations of torture in military custody. The Pakistani media, meanwhile, has been largely muzzled over the past year, with critical reporting on the army and government made nearly impossible.

The congressional letter could pressure the Biden administration to stall a phone call or meeting with the new Pakistani government.

“Pakistan is a longstanding ally of the U.S. and we should hold our allies to an important standard of democracy and free speech. We can’t allow corporate or military interests to override the goal of advocating for democracy around the world,” Casar told The Intercept. “Pakistan is a country of over 200 million people, and this is a critical moment for members of Congress and the Biden administration to stand by democracy. I’m hopeful that through this letter, and the impact of members of Congress standing up for democracy, we can have a real impact before the election is certified.”

Pakistan’s political crisis began when Khan was removed by a vote of no-confidence arranged by the powerful Pakistani military in 2022. Khan is currently in jail on a raft of charges of corruption and mishandling state secrets viewed by most observers as highly politicized. Despite his imprisonment and the barring of his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, supporters of the PTI who ran as independents in the recent vote did exceptionally well. This success came despite blatant rigging both before and after the polls opened, as well as intimidation and violence against PTI supporters and candidates.

The State Department has remained mostly silent about recent reports of abuses in Pakistan by the military-backed regime, as well as the continued detention of Khan and many of his supporters. Yet it issued a rare condemnation immediately following the election, saying that it “included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” and calling for an investigation into claims of election interference or fraud.

Last year, The Intercept reported on the contents of a leaked Pakistani intelligence cable showing that U.S. officials had put pressure on their Pakistani counterparts to remove Khan from office following disagreements over what they called his “aggressively neutral” stance on the Russian conflict in Ukraine. The Intercept later reported that U.S. and Pakistani military officials engaged in cooperation to provide Pakistani ordinances to the Ukrainian military in exchange for support obtaining an IMF loan.

The full text of the letter is below:

Dear President Biden and Secretary Blinken,

We write to express our concerns about pre- and post-poll rigging in Pakistan’s recent parliamentary elections. We appreciate the steps your administration has already taken to draw attention to interference in these elections. Your administration has rightly stood behind the “credible international and local election observers” who documented “undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” and we join you in “condemn[ing] electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the Internet and telecommunication services.” Given these concerns, we urge you to:

1.      withhold recognition of a new government in Pakistan until a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation of election interference has been conducted;

2.      urge Pakistani authorities to release anyone who has been detained for engaging in political speech or activity, and task State Department officials in Pakistan with gathering information about such cases and advocating for their release; and 

3.      make clear to Pakistani authorities that U.S. law provides for accountability for acts that violate human rights, undermine democracy, or further corruption, including the potential for military and other cooperation to be halted.

Prior to the elections on February 8th, former Prime Minister Imran Khan was sentenced to prison terms of 10 years and 14 years on questionable charges of leaking state secrets and corruption. Members of his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), were forced to run as independents and prohibited from using the PTI party symbol on the ballot, despite consistently polling as the most popular party in the country. Leading up to the election, PTI members faced police raids, arrests, and harassment. On the day of the election, Pakistani authorities suspended mobile calls and data, making it harder for voters to find polling stations.[6] While the pre-poll rigging efforts rightly received widespread international and domestic condemnation, attention has now turned to widespread allegations of post-poll rigging.

Concerns arose after delays in reporting final results and early returns showed PTI-backed candidates on a path to victory. Over the coming days and weeks, previously reported vote totals allegedly changed dramatically, while video evidence emerged on social media of purported abuses by security forces and election officials at polling stations, as results were delayed well past legal deadlines.

Findings by nonpartisan observers also lend credibility to these concerns. According to the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), which is nonpartisan but has worked closely with election authorities, more than two-thirds of polling sites suffered from the kinds of election law violations that could have enabled changing outcomes of races. The dispute revolves around discrepancies between the polling center results that were issued to candidates (on a document known as “Form 45”), and the final constituency-wide tally (known as the “Form 47”).  These findings were echoed by other respected election monitors and human rights organizations, as well as the nation’s newspaper of record, which explained in a February 20 editorial that “independent observers, candidates, and accredited media personnel reported being excluded or evicted from the Form 47 compilation process” meant that “the most important check on the process was bypassed without any convincing explanation.” This growing body of evidence and diversity of voices has led many of the leading observers, human rights organizations, and media organizations to call for a transparent, credible audit process to verify the true outcome of the election.

Given the strong evidence of pre- and post-poll rigging, we urge you to wait until a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation has been conducted before recognizing a new Pakistani government. Without taking this necessary step, you risk enabling anti-democratic behavior by Pakistani authorities and could undermine the democratic will of the Pakistani people.

Pakistan is a long-standing ally of the United States, and we recognize the importance of our relationship for regional stability and counterterrorism efforts. It is in the U.S. interest to ensure that democracy thrives in Pakistan and that election results reflect the interests of the Pakistani people, not the interests of the Pakistani elite and military. We look forward to working with you to show Pakistanis that the U.S. stands with them in their fight for democracy and human rights. 

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