New Delhi: An American woman residing in Pakistan, Cynthia Dawn Ritchie, hit headlines last week after she accused several members of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), including former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, of sexual assault.
In a video interview to GeoTV on 7 June, Ritchie went on air with stunning accusations, alleging she was raped by then interior minister Rehman Malik in 2011, “physically manhandled” by former health minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin and former prime minister Yousaf Gilani. The accusations have gripped Pakistanis, even as the Covid-19 pandemic rages across the country with cases crossing 1,44,000.
Her allegations against PPP politicians came on the heels of the party suing her over “libellous” claims she made about the late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and co-chair of the PPP. On 28 May, Ritchie tweeted that Bhutto would order her guards to rape women who had affairs with her husband. After the PPP filed a suit against her for defamation, Ritchie made her allegations on GeoTV.
The former ministers have denied her accusations, but Ritchie took to Twitter to say she was ready to defend her claims in the court of law. “All the documents, voice notes, filthy images and rape threats from PPP, the data scientists who’ve assisted in putting together this nexis of harassment. I hope PPP is ready for my suit,” she wrote.
Absolutely. As I said before, I'm ready for a court. All the documents, voice notes, filthy images and rape threats from PPP, the data scientists who've assisted in putting together this nexis of harassment.
I hope PPP is ready for my suit.
ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE https://t.co/v2QbbJ5hrF
— Cynthia D. Ritchie (@CynthiaDRitchie) June 6, 2020
ThePrint looks at who Ritchie is, and why these allegations are more than what meets the eye.
A ‘freelance media producer’
Ritchie, 44, first came to Pakistan in 2010 and has more or less resided in the country since then. She told magazine Global Villages Space that she came to highlight “the sense of normalcy in the nation”, and “to showcase how much the people here have in common with the ones in the United States, and there are more things common than we may think there are.”
Ritchie describes herself on her social media platforms as “an American freelance director, producer and writer”, but is clearly also an influencer — her Facebook page has more than 3 lakh followers while on Twitter, she has more than 2 lakh followers. She also has a YouTube page that features videos of her exploring different parts of Pakistan, and has shared documentary, Emerging Faces: Exploring Pakistan’s Hidden Treasures, to the same effect.
Despite her apparent popularity, little is known about Ritchie before she came to Pakistan. On her Facebook page, she says she has a Master’s degree in education and additional graduate-level training in clinical, behavioural psychology, conflict resolution and strategic public relations.
‘Ally’ of the military
Over the years, Ritchie has grown close to the country’s military elite and is considered to be an ally of the Pakistani establishment. In a live video on her Facebook page, Ritchie said she came to Pakistan at the invitation of the PPP, but began working with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI) social media wing for free, and claimed to have “no idea of the political battle” between the two.
“Because I had been assisting [the] PTI gratis, on my own time, with their social media strategies back in late 2010-2011, I learnt eventually that PPP was trying to draw me away from PTI,” she said.
She has used her social media influence to attack PTI dissenters, and is seen as a political lobbyist who is close to the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).
In an alleged letter to the country’s investigation watchdog, the Federal Investigation Agency, Ritchie said she was “investigating” the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement’s (PTM) links to the PPP. The PTM is a non-violent, human-rights based movement by the tribal Pashtuns, which is also being suppressed by the military.
Ritchie isn’t the first white woman to walk through Pakistan’s corridors of power. Joanne Herring, an American socialite who was close to Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq, grew to become a trusted advisor to the government.
According to Pakistan military expert Ayesha Siddiqua, “Since the late 1970s, the ISPR and ISI have engaged with White foreign academics so that they can be encouraged to write about the military and Pakistan in a positive light.”
The timing of Ritchie’s allegations have been called into question for acting as a “diversion” from the health crisis unfolding across the country. They have also directed attention away from the proposed changes to the National Finance Commission, a process that decides how funding to the four provinces will be distributed.
The allegations have polarised the people of Pakistan. While Ritchie’s supporters stand by her allegations, her critics question her motives. Ritchie meanwhile, has made it clear that she isn’t “going anywhere”, and that her allegations are here to stay.
I'm not going anywhere.
My vacations can wait.
— Cynthia D. Ritchie (@CynthiaDRitchie) June 10, 2020
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