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Embassy Row: Dangerous duty for Pakistan’s ambassador

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.

"Pakistan's extremists charged me with treason without putting me on trial under law, and they seem to be doing something similar by accusing Ambassador Sherry Rehman of blasphemy," Mr. Haqqani said.

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."

Diplomatic traffic

Foreign visitors in Washington this week include:

Monday

Foreign Minister John Baird of Canada, who meets with political leaders to discuss bilateral issues such as the stalled Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta to Texas.

Tuesday

Alexis Tsipras, leader of the left-wing Syriza coalition in the Greek parliament, who addresses the Brookings Institution.

Thursday

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo and Seyed Aliakba Mousavi, two former members of the Iranian parliament and now pro-democracy advocates. They address the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars about Iran's nuclear program.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email jmorrison@washingtontimes.com. The column is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
James Morrison

James Morrison

James Morrison joined the The Washington Times in 1983 as a local reporter covering Alexandria, Va. A year later, he was assigned to open a Times bureau in Canada. From 1987 to 1989, Mr. Morrison was The Washington Times reporter in London, covering Britain, Western Europe and NATO issues. After returning to Washington, he served as an assistant foreign editor ...

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