Serving as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States is risky business, as the country’s former envoy noted after hearing about the legal threat against the current ambassador.
Ambassador Sherry Rehman, who has been in Washington for a year, is under police investigation in Pakistan on accusations of violating the country’s blasphemy law, a charge that carries the death penalty.
Pakistan’s supreme court last week ordered a police inquiry into a complaint from a businessman against Ms. Rehman for comments she made in 2010 as a member of the Pakistani parliament. Ms. Rehman had proposed legislation to remove the death penalty for blasphemy convictions after Rimsha Masih, a teenage Christian girl, faced execution for burning pages of the Koran.
Following an international outcry, a court threw out her blasphemy conviction two months ago after a Muslim cleric, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, was accused of framing the girl.
The complaint against Ms. Rehman, a prominent member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, came from a businessman, Muhammad Faheem Ahkter Gill, 31, who claimed he was shocked by Ms. Rehman’s comments in a television interview in 2010. He told Pakistani reporters that he had tried for two years to get a court to hear his complaint.
In that interview, Ms. Rehman talked about her goal of removing the death penalty from Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are the strictest of any Muslim-majority nation. She dropped her efforts after facing resistance from her own party.
Defendants accused of blasphemy often face street mobs who kill them, even if they are acquitted. Many defendants flee Pakistan after they are freed by the courts.
Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador Ms. Rehman replaced in Washington, was shocked when he heard of the case against the ambassador.
“It seems that ambassador of Pakistan to the United States is becoming a hazardous job,” he said in an email to Embassy Row.
Mr. Haqqani, ambassador from 2008 to 2011, faced treason charges after a Pakistani-American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, claimed he and Mr. Haqqani were involved in a plot to seek U.S. military intervention in Pakistan to prevent a military coup.
Mr. Haqqani strongly denied the allegations but resigned rather than face the vagaries of the Pakistani judicial system. He now teaches international relations at Boston University.
He criticized the supreme court for accepting the petition of blasphemy instead of insisting the complaint be filed in a lower court, from which the case could work itself up the judicial system through appeals.
“These petitions generate a hostile environment without a formal charge or trial and encourage extremists to physically threaten an ambassador viewed as a traitor or blasphemer,” Mr. Haqqani said.
He added his concern that “ideologically motivated judges” are damaging Pakistan’s “image as a modern democracy.”