Why a US blogger is at the centre of controversy in Pakistan

4 months ago 19
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Last month marked the ninth year since United States forces conducted the deadly raid on the compound of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Bin Laden's whereabouts were confirmed by DNA tests done under a fake anti-polio campaign run by local health officials in 2011.

At the time, American Cynthia Ritchie worked for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province's health ministry, which collected the samples from Abbottabad. Ritchie, who started coming to the region two years prior to the raid, says her presence in the KPK's health ministry at the time was "a coincidence".

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Her apparent free access to the country's remote tribal region and, by her own admission, tacit support by the security forces have raised eyebrows in Pakistan, where foreign journalists often face hurdles in reporting.

A  foreign correspondent who was expelled from Pakistan told Al Jazeera: "Tribal areas were out of bounds without permissions and Balochistan even harder. The military could be sensitive (about criticism), of course, but they had nothing like the kind of clout they have now."

Ritchie says she is investigating a political group called the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) for "anti-state activities". The PTM has been campaigning against human rights violations conducted by the military against ethnic Pashtuns in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan.

Ritchie, who says she is not a journalist, has shared her photos with uniformed security officers on her social media accounts, but she has denied working for or being hired by any security agency inside or outside Pakistan.

Pakistan's local media reports have said the military also denied any links to Ritchie.

But these are not the reasons why Ritchie, a graduate from the Louisiana State University, is at the centre of a massive controversy in Pakistan.

Allegations of rape

Ritchie, who has lived in Pakistan on and off since 2009, has a powerful outreach among the country's social media users with her videos focusing on culture and the people of Pakistan getting millions of hits.

Last week, the blogger was the topic of conversation on Pakistani media after she accused former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of ordering the rape of the women with whom her husband, former President Asif Ali Zardari, had an affiar.

This echos stories of what BB used to do when her husband cheated. She"d have the guards rape the women.

Why do women condone this rape culture? Why aren't the men ever held accountable? Where is the justice system?

To Pakistan's youth: please reject this backward thinking! https://t.co/Xr3xTNzAVq

— Cynthia D. Ritchie (@CynthiaDRitchie) May 28, 2020

She told Al Jazeera she has all the required evidence to back up her claims, which local political analysts have dubbed bizarre. She has yet to share the apparent evidence to substantiate her claims.

The ensuing outrage from millions of Bhutto supporters resulted in one female senator of the main opposition Pakistan People's Party (PPP) writing letters to authorities accusing Ritchie of "willfully leaking private and photo-shopped photographs, private information, personal and tampered documents without authorisation and exploiting them in public using her social media, abusing cyberspace and violating PECA [the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act] laws with a malicious intention to harm, humiliate, pressurise and blackmail personalities targeted by her".

After formal complaints were filed against her, Ritchie uploaded a video accusing former Interior Minister Rehman Malik of rape. She also accused politicians from Bhutto's PPP party, including former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, of inappropriate physical conduct.

"I have also experienced great horrors in this country. I also reported this and communicated this with the US embassy several days after the event. I was stunned, I was shocked, I reported it to an individual and the US embassy has these details," she told Al Jazeera.

"Their response was less than adequate. And let me tell you why I believe it was less than adequate because of one word 'f****** politics', politics! They did not want to disrupt what was going on in the country. So my rape was kept quiet and I was offered to go home."

The US embassy in Pakistan says it cannot comment on a private citizen unaffiliated with the US government due to privacy considerations, but added that it "provides appropriate services and support to all Americans in Pakistan".

Ritchie says all the incidents date back to 2011 when she began working for Prime Minister Imran Khan's ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

But she has finally mustered up the courage to go public. "I understand that it can be confusing for a lot of people. Those who have endured abuse don't always come forward straight away," she told Al Jazeera.

She has described former minister Makhdoom Shahbuddin as "a skirt chaser".

Politicians named in her allegations, including former ministers Malik, Gilani and Shahbuddin, have denied the allegations. They have sent multiple legal notices to Ritchie and asked the government that she should be prevented from leaving the country.

Family sources of the politicians say Ritchie's antics reek of a campaign to divert attention from current issues and malign opposition politicians.

"Mudslinging campaigns are often effective because they never reach legal proceedings but successfully create confusion about the character of the accused, regardless of them having any involvement in what they are accused of," one family member told Al Jazeera.

Divert attention 

Politicians from the PPP say there is a campaign against them for authoring an amendment to the constitution in 2010, which curtailed presidential power to dissolve governments and ensured autonomy to the provinces.

The opposition has accused the Khan government and the powerful military of using Ritchie to divert attention from the government's failure to address the economic crisis and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In 13 years what has the 18th amendment achieved for people of Sindh?#PPP used to be a Federalist, forward-looking party under Bhutto. Zardari has turned PPP into an ethno-fascist racist mafia like PTM.

I've been to Thar, if PPP can't run a desert PPP can't run a country.

— Cynthia D. Ritchie (@CynthiaDRitchie) June 3, 2020

But Ritchie did confirm reports that she had accepted an amount of $2,500 (2,000 pounds) from the former interior minister after her alleged rape in 2011.

"I know how that looks … Nobody bothered to ask me what I did with the money. Yes I was financially strapped but there were also young children and faculty members at the National Health Institute who were very kind to me. I had that money converted to local currency and gave it to people who were struggling more than I was."

"The story must be told in a sense that if myself as a strong woman, as an American woman who has defended other people, if this can happen to me, what is happening to the local women," she said, becoming emotional describing her ordeal.

"I know what it's like to be violated as a woman - you know I can play the woman card, the Christian card, the American card whatever but I don't want to do that."

But analysts have raised the question as to why Ritchie has not filed the case in the Pakistani court rather than hurling accusations on twitter. Several others have questioned her motive as all the accusations are against leaders from the opposition PPP.

Ritchie says she plans to stay in Pakistan and approach the court.

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