Describing shrinking space for civil society and media freedom in Pakistan as "troubling", the United States on Tuesday said it remains "deeply concerned" over reports of human rights abuses and discrimination faced by people in the country because of their faith.
It urged the Pakistani government to uphold the rule of law and the freedoms enshrined in the country's Constitution.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice G Wells in a prepared statement to Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation of the House Foreign Affairs Committee hoped that the reforms Pakistan is undertaking under its current IMF plan will lay the foundation for better economic management and growth, leading to an improvement in the democratic system and human rights situation.
"In recent years, we have observed some troubling trends within Pakistan, including shrinking space for civil society and media freedom. Pressure on the media and civil society including harassment, threats, and financial and regulatory action, has increased over the past year," she said in a prepared statement submitted to the Congressional subcommittee on the eve of the hearing "Human Rights in South Asia: Views from the State Department and the Region".
The US, Wells said, continues to urge the Pakistani government to uphold the rule of law.
This includes the right of groups that criticise the leadership and security establishment, like the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, to peacefully assemble, she added.
"We are concerned with Pakistan's problematic registration policy for international non-governmental organisations, as it impedes the ability of reputable and well-respected organisations to do important work that benefits the people of Pakistan," Wells said.
The US State Department engages regularly with provincial and federal authorities, as well as with other affected stakeholders, including civil society organisations, politicians, activists, religious leaders, and journalists, to convey this message and to support those working to improve the lives of the Pakistani people, she said.
"We remain deeply concerned about reports of human rights abuses and discrimination faced by Pakistanis because of their faith," Wells said.
In many cases, she said, these abuses are perpetrated by non-state actors.
Pakistan has taken steps to counter many of the country's most virulent terrorist organisations posing a direct threat to the state, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, she said.
Wells said Pakistan's Supreme Court also took an important step in January 2019 by upholding its own October 2018 acquittal of Asia Bibi on blasphemy charges, which subsequently enabled her safe departure from the country.
The court's verdict emphasised the necessity of inter-faith tolerance and not "curtailing the rights" of members of religious minority groups, both of which are critical to improving religious freedom in Pakistan, she said.
Despite strong opposition to the verdict from some hardline elements in the country, the Pakistani government largely stood up to defend the court's decision. As Prime Minister Imran Khan stated, the Asia Bibi verdict was decided "according to Pakistan's constitution", Wells said.
Nevertheless, she said, Pakistan's laws and policies continue to discriminate against members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.
Its continued enforcement of blasphemy laws, which has resulted in dozens of Pakistanis on death row or serving life sentences in prison, as well as incidents of mob violence following blasphemy allegations, remain deeply troubling, she added.
"The overall situation prompted Secretary Pompeo to designate Pakistan a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act in 2018," Wells said.