Woman who wants Pakistan's blasphemy law reformed is new ambassador to U.S.

KARACHI, Pakistan — Sherry Rehman, a high-profile politician under threat for her call to reform Pakistan's blasphemy law, was named Pakistan's new ambassador to Washington on Wednesday, one day after her predecessor was forced to resign at the apparent behest of the country's powerful military.

Rehman, a human rights campaigner and former journalist who is a member of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, will replace Husain Haqqani, who stepped down over a disputed memo that he allegedly wrote seeking Obama administration help against Pakistan's military.

Rehman is a strong personality with liberal views, not the sort of person typically favored by the armed forces, suggesting that Pakistan's civilian government fought to keep some say in handling the country's most important foreign relationship. But her stance on national security issues is much less likely to trouble Pakistan's military establishment than those of Haqqani, a former Boston University professor who wrote a book detailing links between Pakistan's army and jihadist groups.

Rehman, 50, lives under protection after receiving numerous death threats over unsuccessful legislation she introduced in parliament to reform the country's widely abused blasphemy laws, which have been used to prosecute Christians and other religious minorities for allegedly denigrating Islam. Earlier this year, two other politicians from the Pakistan Peoples Party were gunned down by extremists over the same issue. Following those killings, the debate in Pakistan over blasphemy was snuffed out. She has also helped steer through legislation against domestic violence and so-called honor killings.

Rehman served for a year as information minister before quitting in 2009 over differences with President Asif Zardari about restrictions on the media.

Cyril Almeida, a newspaper columnist, said that her relations with the military were "perhaps not friendly, but no overt animosity, either."

Pakistan's military jealously guards its near monopoly over foreign and national security policies, making it deeply suspicious of the direct access Haqqani had enjoyed to the top levels of the U.S. government.

The glamorous Rehman will be working for Pakistan's much younger but equally stylish foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, who has been criticized in some Pakistani circles for carrying Birkin designer handbags on foreign trips. Rehman also has been known to carry Birkin bags.

A graduate of Smith College, Rehman has a tough assignment ahead, fixing the battered imagine of Pakistan in the U.S. while keeping her own country's military on board.

Earlier this year, a think tank Rehman established, the Jinnah Institute, published a report trying to explain Pakistan's much-vilified aims in Afghanistan, where U.S. officials have accused Pakistan and its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, of supporting the Taliban and helping to coordinate attacks on Americans. Pakistan denied that the ISI had been involved in such attacks, though Pakistani officials acknowledge that the ISI maintains ties to some jihadi groups, seeing them as leverage against its archenemy, India.

Rehman wrote in September that ties between Washington and Islamabad could be repaired "if there is an appreciation in American policy circles that Pakistan's actions in the region may be motivated by fear rather than ambition."

Haqqani was forced to resign Tuesday over a memo delivered in May to Adm. Mike Mullen, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that proposed that Zardari's government would disband the ISI wing said to be in charge of dealing with the Taliban and other Islamic extremists. In return, the memo asked for the U.S. to warn Pakistan's military against staging a coup.

Haqqani has denied that he wrote the memo, which was delivered to Mullen by an American businessman and occasional media commentator, Masood Ijaz, who revealed its existence in an Oct. 10 opinion column in Britain's Financial Times newspaper. Mullen, after first denying that a memo existed, acknowledged receiving it, but he said he doubted its authenticity and took no action on it.

Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, demanded Haqqani's resignation after intense behind-the-scenes pressure from the military to sack him, amid accusations of treason. An investigation is now underway to determine who wrote the memo.

Haqqani seemed relieved it was all over, saying on Twitter on Wednesday morning. "Ah! To wake up in my motherland, without the burden of conducting Pakistan's most difficult external relationship."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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