It all began on Twitter, on May 28, when Cynthia D Ritchie, an American national who has lived in Pakistan for nearly a decade, tweeted alleging that Benazir Bhutto would order her guards to “rape” women with whom her husband Asif Ali Zardari had affairs.
Since then, the matter has spiralled, and drawn in more top-rungers in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). On Saturday, Ritchie accused former Interior Minister Rehman Malik of raping her, and former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and another Cabinet Minister of groping her. Both Malik and Gilani have denied the allegations.
The PPP, the ruling party in Sindh province, despite the massive setback in the 2018 parliamentary election, is shaken and has demanded that the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) investigate Ritchie and the terms of her stay in Pakistan for her “very derogatory and slanderous remarks” about Benazir and Zardari.
Sherry Rehman, a PPP representative in the Senate, the upper house in Pakistan’s parliament, posted on Twitter: “I usually don’t dignify such garbage, but this is libellous, heinous slander based on malicious lies. Attributing such filth to a champion for women’s rights, a martyred prime minister degrades the writer of this bot-handle more than anything else.”
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Even as Pakistan grapples with a surge in novel coronavirus infections, many Pakistanis are finding l’affaire Cynthia Ritchie more rivetting at the moment. There are plenty of PPP-haters who are savouring the moment, but an equal number are asking: who is Cynthia Ritchie?
So who, indeed, is Cynthia D Ritchie?
The Indian Express sent her a list of questions, but she responded saying her forthcoming “live televised interviews this week” would provide all the answers.
From reports in the Pakistani media, it appears that she has been a resident of Pakistan for close to a decade. She has been described as a blogger, a filmmaker, and “a social media enthusiast”.
Her Facebook page says she is from Louisiana, “has a Masters degree from Louisiana State University and additional graduate training at University of Houston School of Law, Pepperdine University and George Washington University in the faculties of mass communications, criminal justice, conflict resolution, clinical & behavioral psychology and strategic public relations”.
Her blog does not show up in Internet searches, and although she has said many times over the past 10 years that she is making a documentary, she does not seem to have one made yet.
In an interview to a Pakistani magazine called “Thexpatt”, titled “Chronicles of an Adventuress”, Ritchie said she had been visiting the country since 2010 “in the wake of the floods” of that year. Her visits, she said, were funded by Pakistani-Americans.
The magazine called her “a unique cocktail of expertise, insight and sheer talent”, and said she had been “reshaping perceptions” between the people of Pakistan and America. She said in the interview that when she was invited to speak at universities, she liked to shock her audiences with “contra-positive” images about Pakistan. The American media, she said, was extremely negative about Pakistan.
She told the interviewer: “It was from Pakistanis who said we need more people like you in our country to help to articulate who we are as a people, who we are as a culture, as a faith. … When people ask why did I choose Pakistan? I explain, I didn’t choose Pakistan, Pakistan chose me!”
However, some Pakistanis smell something fishy in the story of the “pagal gori”, as “Thexpatt” described her, who is in love with the country. On social media, they describe her as “close to the establishment”, and ask how she has managed to get a visa to live and stay in the country year after year, with access to places that can only be given after clearance at the highest level of the militablishment that rules Pakistan.
Her Facebook page shows she is active in the lobbying efforts against India on Kashmir, but that is not what is riling those who suspect that this a broader design. Some believe she is a CIA mole who has developed deep contacts in the security establishment. Others think that she has been co-opted by the Pakistan military, and this is their latest hit job against civilian politicians, especially the PPP.
“I can’t say whether or not she had the experiences she’s gone public about. That is something that remains to be investigated. Meanwhile, her accusations, coming at this time, divert attention from the main threat the country faces, the health and economic crisis arising from the coronavirus pandemic. The PPP-led Sindh government has taken the lead in trying to stop the spread, that the federal government has been opposing it tooth and nail,” Beena Sarwar, a journalist and human rights and India-Pakistan peace activist, said.
“These allegations put pressure on political parties, make them lose face publicly, probably to divert attention from other issues such as the lack of governance,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani military and political analyst. Pakistan has nearly a lakh Covid-19 positive cases, and 2,000 deaths.
It may be also purely coincidental that the allegations have come at a time when the 10th National Finance Commission has just been constituted. In post-Covid Pakistan, its allocations will be extremely vital for the four provinces.
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The PPP, which brought in changes to the way resources were distributed among the provinces when it was in office 10 years ago, has resisted attempts by the present government, prodded by the military, to change the criteria, as well as a planned rollback of the progressive 18th amendment to the Constitution under which devolution to the provinces was increased.
Ritchie has also dragged in the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a group with wide support in what used to be the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, in particular in South and North Waziristan, the geographical centre of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy.
In a purported letter to the FIA following the PPP’s complaint against her, she has said that she is investigating the PTM’s links with the PPP. The PTM is a strident critic of the Pakistan Army’s proxy war policy through jihadist groups and its extension, the shadow wars within the country. Just two years old as a political party, it is the only organised political force that now challenges the Pakistan Army openly.
PTM members and supporters have questioned Ritchie’s interest in the party — one on whose activities the Pakistan Army has tried to keep a lid on, and whose members it describes as terrorists.
In her purported letter, Ritchie has also said that she has “worked closely” with several organisations linked with the government and the Pakistan Army, such as the “counter-terrorism department, female commandos in KP, highways and motorways police, military, NACTA, etc”.
Said Siddiqa: “It’s very saddening. While serious work academic work is being produced in India on Indian policy, it is pitiful that Pakistan has to depend on this bizarre way of trying to project its image. It shows the establishment has no trust in Pakistanis, and would rather depend on dubious characters from abroad.”
If this entire episode is indeed a plot against the PPP, it seemed to go awry when a well-known transTV celebrity, Ali Saleem, famous for his portrayals of Begum Nawazish Ali, made the claim that Ritchie had confided in him that Imran Khan had propositioned her.
Ritchie hit back saying Ali Saleem’s history of substance abuse was well-known, and that he was not in the best of health.
Please know EVERYTHING I have – and will – share about PPP will stand up in court and will air a lot of dirty laundry in Zardari’s PPP.
After 10+ years in 🇵🇰 it is time to clean house.
— Cynthia D. Ritchie (@CynthiaDRitchie) June 2, 2020
On Twitter, where the battle is playing out most intensely, Ritchie’s supporters are denouncing all those who question her as traitors and anti-Pakistan, while her detractors are raising questions about her visa, work, and who is paying her.
Human rights activist Marvi Sirmed, while calling for an end to slut-shaming Ritchie, said: “Why are all our friends abusing and insulting her when we all know who has recruited her? She might as well be their hostage in Pakistan. Please NEVER slut shame women. Never.”
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