The American woman making headlines in Pakistan is no stranger to the country—or its corridors of power
American Cynthia Dawn Ritchie has been a semi-permanent fixture in Pakistan for nearly a decade, winding her way through the corridors of power to secure influence within political parties desperate for Western validation—and within a security apparatus looking to boost the “soft” image of the country.
As with so many stories about westerners—especially women—who end up under a spotlight in Pakistan, Ritchie’s current notoriety starts with a proposal. “I am interested in getting married to you. Will you marry me?” she was asked by an aging federal minister in Islamabad during the winter of 2011, according to several people familiar with both parties. The woman was visiting the federal capital on a business-class ticket that had been arranged by the same minister.
Ritchie demurred, and claims she told the then-health minister, Makhdoom Shahabuddin of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), to no longer continue meeting her after he popped the question. Both had met almost a year earlier, at the end of 2010, at a five-star hotel in Islamabad. At the time, Pakistani-American Dr. Ashraf Abbasi, the brother-in-law of Senator Azam Swati, was hosting the 34-year-old Ritchie. The physician was visiting his homeland to monitor a charity project he had launched in his native city of Nowshera in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
Reportedly, Dr. Abbasi was stopped in Abbottabad at a police checkpost on an intelligence tip-off and informed that he could not enter the area with Ritchie without permission from the Ministry of the Interior. Not wishing to disappoint his companion, he set up a meeting with then-interior minister Rehman Malik to secure the necessary permission to take the American to Mansehra and its adjoining areas for his charity work. Little did anyone at the time know that this same woman would soon be known within the highest offices of Pakistan—both military and civilian.
While Ritchie’s relationship with Shahabuddin was allegedly soured by his proposal, she made the most of their connection by securing introductions to several members of the federal cabinet, including Rehman Malik. At the same time, her relations with the military establishment also continued to grow. But while Shahabuddin opened new avenues for Ritchie, his presence also closed some others: Dr. Abbasi told Ritchie that he did not wish to have any more contact with her, as he did not care for her connections with the PPP leader.
Close aides of Makhdoom Shahabuddin have denied these claims, claiming that while the PPP leader had met Ritchie and was aware of her, he had decided to distance himself from her after realizing that she had connections with the country’s intelligence agencies. Their conflicting narratives both end the same way: Ritchie using one politician to secure contacts with another, establishing links with the most powerful of Pakistan’s elite.
Ritchie’s first documented visit to Pakistan was in November 2009 on a visit visa. According to her Twitter feed, she met representatives of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) during that trip. One prominent MQM leader, who wishes to remain anonymous, has said that Ritchie was introduced to them as a student pursuing a doctorate. “We met [her], and forgot [about her], but now she has surfaced again with a bang,” they said.
For her second visa in 2010, the Louisiana native was reportedly facilitated by the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce (PCC) in Houston, Texas, where she introduced herself as an admirer of the country looking for opportunities to highlight a positive image of Pakistan to the world. Dr. Abbasi founded the PCC, though he was in Pakistan at the time of Ritchie’s visit and was informed of her desire to advance a “soft image” of his homeland by the organization’s office-bearers, who subsequently introduced them to each other.
Since that first visit in November 2009, Ritchie has entered Pakistan 45 times. Her initial visits were all on visit visas, but 2015-now, she has been granted multiple-entry business visas. This information, however, did not come to light until she made headlines globally after accusing former interior minister Malik of rape, and former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and former health minister Shahabuddin of separate cases of sexual misconduct. All three belong to the opposition PPP and have denied these charges in their respective media statements. Ritchie has yet to approach any court or relevant legal forum to formally initiate investigations and back her allegations.
As a prelude to her allegations against the three PPP leaders, Ritchie alleged on Twitter that Pakistan’s former prime minister, and the Muslim world’s first woman head-of-state, Benazir Bhutto had her security guards rape women accused of affairs with her husband Asif Ali Zardari. These allegations, as well as her unverified insistence that Zardari once slapped Benazir in front of her entire cabinet, had already inflamed the PPP and raised questions about Ritchie’s presence in Pakistan. Several party officials have attempted to file a case against Ritchie with police and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). However, both law enforcement agencies have refused to register any defamation case, claiming either the individual named by Ritchie, or someone in their immediate family, must file the complaint. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority also washed its hands off the case, claiming it can only block controversial websites and not specific posts. This is false, as the government has in the past directed social media websites to block specific posts that are seen in violation of local laws and norms. On June 15, the court ordered the FIA to launch an inquiry against Ritchie’s tweets, adding that registration of a case would be contingent on the results of the probe.
Meanwhile, as the inquiry proceeds, the Interior Ministry has started work on granting Ritchie a 30-day visa extension against an application she submitted online in February. Her visa expired on March 2—ahead of the coronavirus pandemic—but she has availed an Interior Ministry extension, set to end on June 30, that has been provided to all foreigners stuck in Pakistan during the lockdown. In her visa extension application, Ritchie claims she has been working with the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of Pakistan’s armed forces, as well as the Archeology Department of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. In her statement to the FIA on a complaint filed against her by a local PPP leader, she has claimed that for the last two years she has been working with the military and security services to investigate “anti-state” links between the PPP and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement. This makes two separate occasions at which she has claimed she is affiliated with the Pakistani military establishment. No formal denial or confirmation has been issued by the military about her claims.
The unusual interests and multiple visits of an American woman, who is decidedly not a tourist, across the breadth of Pakistan have raised questions about her actions in the past decade, especially as she was also frequenting places such as Abbottabad, where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. forces in 2011. It is still not clear exactly when, or how, Ritchie secured approval for her activities from Pakistan’s military and its intelligence services. However, there are reports that she was briefly detained by law enforcement agencies a few years back, and during investigations her interrogators preferred to utilize her services to advance a “positive” image of Pakistan rather than deporting her back to United States.
While Ritchie continues to make headlines with her controversial tweets and interviews on mainstream and social media outlets, no government department appears willing to take serious notice of the allegations leveled by a foreigner—with dubious reasons for being in the country—against the elite of Pakistani politics.
Syed is an Islamabad-based journalist, trainer and author. His book The Secrets of Pakistan’s War On Al Qaeda was published in 2015.