By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006
The Bush administration has withdrawn an invitation to a Pakistani lawmaker and a prominent critic of President Pervez Musharraf who was to arrive in the United States today as a guest of the State Department, setting off charges that the action came at the behest of the Pakistani government.
Sana Ullah Baloch, who had been invited by the State Department last year and issued a visa, was told recently by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad that he could not attend a State Department-sponsored program on accountability in government and business and that a visa he had already received had been revoked.
American officials first told Baloch in a letter sent March 13 that they had taken the action because of "a recent withdrawal in funding which made it necessary for us to scale back the program."
In an interview Wednesday, State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck said the problem was not funding but rather new information that was received after Baloch had been approved that "led us to believe he was not eligible for a visa." She declined to elaborate.
The incident has drawn sharp parallels with the case of Mukhtar Mai, a woman gang-raped in 2002 by a village council in Pakistan, who was prevented by the Pakistani government from traveling to the United States last summer to publicize her story. The government later relented.
The changing explanations fueled suspicion among some South Asia experts in Washington that Pakistan, a U.S. ally in the hunt for al-Qaeda leaders, asked the Bush administration not to permit Baloch to come to the United States. Baloch has been highly critical of Musharraf's handling of an intensifying conflict in Baluchistan, a restive province that Baloch represents in the national parliament.
"What is truly outrageous about his situation is this was a U.S.-government-sponsored trip," said Michael McFaul, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Washington, who spent three weeks with Baloch at a meeting at Stanford University aimed at promoting democracy and human rights. "Since when do we let other countries decide whom we should invite to our country?"
"We are all embarrassed because we all suspect the same thing, but so far the questions we have asked the administration remain unanswered," said Frederic Grare, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which was forced to cancel next week's event for Baloch.
Amnesty International's advocacy director for Asia, T. Kumar, said the group would bring the issue to the attention of Congress: "This is a coverup. This is a war on terror issue, and they need Pakistan."
Baloch's allies note that they have no direct evidence of their claims, and the Pakistani government and the State Department deny that Pakistan was involved.
Tariq Azim Khan, one of Baloch's fellow senators and a spokesman for the Pakistani government, joked that "it is surprising to note that Pakistan has that much sway with the State Department and the American Embassy in Islamabad."
Baloch was welcome to express his views anywhere, Khan said, adding that the Pakistani government itself had included the critic in many interparliamentary delegations. Khan described the unrest in Baluchistan as the work of a tiny but vocal minority, led by people such as Baloch, who Khan charged was upset because traditional roles of patronage were being sidelined by development programs.
Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst for Afghanistan who now works for the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the department's intelligence analysts may have learned something problematic about Baloch. But Selig Harrison, author of "In Afghanistan's Shadow," a book on Baluch nationalism, said that absent evidence, "one would discount that as simply a cover story."
In an interview via cellphone, Baloch said that his province -- the largest in Pakistan -- was being exploited for its natural resources, even as the region was starved of development funds. The province borders Iran and Afghanistan and is strategically important to oil-shipping lanes. Baloch said locals want more authority but were being undermined by the Pakistani government's leverage of radical Islam in the liberal-minded region.
"They don't want to allow any Baluch political activist to get in touch with the international community regarding the human rights violations in Baluchistan," he said, adding that about 600 people had been killed in recent months.