Asma Jahangir (1952-2018): Pakistan’s Lion-Hearted Human Rights Champion by Farahnaz Ispahani

When Asma Jahangir died in Lahore on February 11, Pakistan and the international human rights community lost a great champion of justice and freedom. Asma stood for and by the side of Pakistan’s religious minorities as no one had ever done before. As a lawyer and a human rights activist, she was the greatest opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are the harshest in the world.

Asma founded the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and used it relentlessly to bring attention to the rights of Pakistan’s oppressed ethnic and religious minorities, women, children, and political dissidents.

She confronted military dictatorships and Pakistan’s deep state even when they threatened her and her family with vigilante justice orchestrated by religious zealots. Despite all this, she maintained a marvelous sense of humor and an even greater sense of justice and fair play.

Mr. Husain Haqqani, Ms. Asma Jehangir & Author Ms. Farahnaz Ispahani

Although Asma Jahangir was a remarkably competent and capable lawyer, she was wholly unimpressed by formalities and undaunted by considerations of her own status.

One would sometimes see her in Islamabad hitching a ride on the back of a motorcycle to get to an urgent hearing at the Supreme Court for victims of enforced disappearances when her car was stuck in traffic. On one trip to investigate extrajudicial killings in Balochistan, she slept on the floor with only books under her head as a pillow.

Her all-women law practice in Lahore bravely accepted cases of those accused of blasphemy notwithstanding threats of violence from religious extremists. She also represented bonded laborers, whose well-connected and influential masters were known for pursuing critics of their unjust practices using private armies.

In the mid-1980s, Asma became such a thorn in the side of the Islamist dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq that his hand-chosen unelected parliament (called Majlis-e-Shoora) retaliated by passing a resolution accusing Asma Jahangir of blasphemy and calling for her to be sentenced to death. The basis of the accusation was a comment she allegedly made in a Women’s Action Forum (WAF) meeting. General Zia set up a commission to investigate the accusation, but a recording of the WAF meeting proved Asma had not made the alleged statement.

Asma Jahangir secured an unprecedented acquittal for an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles. They had been falsely accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore in 1993. Nevertheless, one of Salamat’s uncles, Manzoor Masih, was killed outside district courts in Gujranwala during the initial hearing of the case.

Asma represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by the trial court. Although she won acquittal for both clients from the Lahore High Court in 1995, the justice who rendered the decision, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was assassinated. The case highlighted the inherent injustice of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

To her last day, Asma remained undeterred by the ongoing threats of violence against her for continuing to oppose these laws as well as discriminatory laws against the Ahmadiyya sect.

Asma Jahangir was a giant of a woman who spent her entire life fighting injustice, be it based on politics, socioeconomic differences, religion, or gender. She has left behind a still-fractured country that needs her now more than ever.

Pakistan’s oppressed and dispossessed will long remember Asma Jahangir, the woman with a huge heart, simplest tastes, and courage of a lion who gave voice to that unfortunate country’s voiceless. May she rest in peace.

The writer Farahnaz Ispahani is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C., and a Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute. She is the author of Purifying The Land of The Pure: The History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017). A former Pakistani politician, Ms. Ispahani served as a Member of Parliament and Media Advisor to the President of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012.

Link to the original article published by Religious Freedom Institute https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/blog/asma-jahangir-1952-2018-pakistans-lion-hearted-human-rights-champion?utm_content=bufferd5d75&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Asma Jahangir – The voice of Pakistan’s voiceless by Farahnaz Ispahani & Husain Haqqani

Asma Jahangir will be remembered for her conviction and courage

 Asma Jahangir will be remembered as a fearless advocate for the rule of law and human rights. She challenged the notion that religion or national security were sufficient grounds to ignore the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time of her death on February 11, Asma served as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, documenting the injustices and atrocities of Tehran’s clerical regime.

Taking on her father’s mantle

Asma said it was her father, Malik Ghulam Jilani, who inculcated in her the belief in civil liberties. Jilani resigned from his position as civil servant in Pakistan to protest against the country’s first military coup in 1958. One of Asma’s memories as a teenager related to an assassination attempt on her father at their Lahore home, instigated by Pakistan’s security services in 1965. Her father was not hurt, but an opposition parliamentarian was injured and a journalist visiting the Jilani home at the time was killed. Jilani was in and out of jail for much of Asma’s early life, refusing to give in to the two military dictators he confronted.

Asma took on her father’s mantle of opposing dictatorship when, at a young age, she petitioned Pakistan’s Supreme Court against her father’s detention under martial law. She won the case when the court ruled in 1972, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, against the legality of a military coup. The ruling did not change the course of Pakistan’s history though, and within five years, another military dictator had taken over, duly endorsed by another pusillanimous Supreme Court.

The Islamist military dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq during the 1980s shut down most opposition. It was during this period that Asma emerged as an icon of resistance to obscurantism and oppression. She co-founded the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, bringing international attention to the rights of Pakistan’s oppressed ethnic and religious minorities, women, children, and political dissidents. She also played a critical role in organising the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which opposed General Zia’s legislation aimed at rolling back most of the rights that women had achieved in the modern era. WAF organised demonstrations against attempts to reduce a woman’s testimony’s worth in certain legal matters to half the evidence offered by a man, among other things.

Images of Asma, whether staring down armed police or being beaten by them while being dragged to prison, became the symbol of opposition to the Zia dictatorship and appeared on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. General Zia’s hand-picked unelected Parliament (called Majlis-e-Shoora) retaliated by passing a resolution accusing her of blasphemy and calling for her to be sentenced to death. The basis of the accusation was a comment that she had allegedly made in a WAF meeting. General Zia set up a commission to investigate the allegation.

After General Zia’s death, Asma continued to oppose Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the harshest in the world, as well as other violations of human rights in the country under weak civilian governments, while also advocating civilian supremacy over Pakistan’s all-powerful military. She refused to accept political office under civilian governments, arguing that her work was in the streets and courts, and that she did not wish to be encumbered by the compromises that are necessary in politics.

Her struggle against military dictatorship and Pakistan’s deep state continued through the rule of General Pervez Musharraf, from 1999 to 2008. After the restoration of some semblance of civilian rule, Asma focussed on exposing generals and judges who interfered with the democratic process through behind-the-scenes manipulation. She withstood threats against her and her family, as well as the hazard of vigilante justice orchestrated by religious zealots.

Against blasphemy laws

Asma secured an unprecedented acquittal for an 11-year-old Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncles who had been wrongly accused of writing blasphemous words on the wall of a mosque in a small town near Lahore in 1993. One of the uncles, Manzoor Masih, was killed outside the District and Sessions Court in Gujranwala during the initial hearing of the case.

Asma represented Salamat Masih and Rehmat Masih when they appealed before the Lahore High Court against their conviction by the trial court. Although she won acquittal for both of them from the Lahore High Court in 1995, Justice Arif Iqbal Bhatti, who gave the decision, was assassinated in the chambers of the Lahore High Court in 1997. The case highlighted the inherent injustice of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Asma remained undeterred by the continued threats of violence to her opposing these laws, as well as discriminatory laws against the Ahmadiyya sect, until her dying day. She earned recognition as a competent and capable lawyer, unbothered by formalities and considerations of her status. Her sense of justice and fair play was matched by her sense of humour in the toughest of times.

One could see her hopping on to the back of a motorcycle, if her car was stuck in traffic, to get to an urgent hearing at the Supreme Court for victims of enforced disappearances. She slept on the floor, with some books under her head as a pillow, on a trip to investigate extrajudicial killings in Balochistan.

Asma Jahangir will be remembered by Pakistan’s oppressed and dispossessed as a woman with a huge heart, the simplest of tastes, and great conviction and courage, who gave voice to that unfortunate country’s voiceless.

Farahnaz Ispahani is Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and served as a member of Pakistan’s Parliament. Husain Haqqani is Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011

The Article was published by “The Hindu” with original link http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-voice-of-pakistans-voiceless/article22791093.ece

The flight and fight of political exiles

 

Three South Asian leaders unpack their experience of living in distant lands with the constant urge to return

The difference between migrants and exiles is that exiles don’t unpack their bags, said Mohamed Nasheed, the former President of the Maldives, who has been living in exile since 2016. “And I don’t want to unpack my bag. I want to return back.”

In the opening panel discussion on “Exile: the challenges of leading from afar” at The Huddle, Mr. Nasheed, Farahnaz Ispahani, a Pakistani politician and human rights activist now living in Washington, DC, and S.C. Chandrahasan, a Sri Lankan human rights activist who worked with refugees who streamed into India since the anti-Tamil violence of 1983, shared their individual stories of flight and the hopes and interventions that keep a leader in exile going.

The exile’s condition is unique. Introducing the subject, the moderator, N. Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Group, noted that a migrant left for a better life, a refugee for safety, and an exile in order to return some day.

In a sense, the possibility of return for the leader of conscience in exile was associated with the cause of his or her disruptive flight being addressed, of the homeland being a better, kinder place.

Indian intervention

For Mr. Nasheed, it’s the eventual triumph of democracy — and with the political crisis deepening in the Maldives, he made a strong pitch for greater Indian intervention.

For Ms. Ispahani, a former MP in Pakistan and author recently of Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities, it’s the safety and enfranchisement of the country’s minorities. This is her second spell in exile, the first being during the regime of Pervez Musharraf, and this time she said, “There will perhaps be no going back.” There has been a “soft coup” in Pakistan, she said, arguing that Nawaz Sharif’s removal as Prime Minister, upon disqualification by the Supreme Court, was “unconstitutional”.

But the call to action remains as valid, she said, of “keeping people’s dreams alive for a better day”. She works with activists and exile-seekers back home: “We are people they turn to when they need visas.”

For Mr. Chandrahasan, who returned to his Colombo home in 2011 after a 27-year exile, that return coincided with the ongoing rehabilitation, post-2010, of refugees and political reconciliation. His time away, in effect, was spent with those hunted out of their homes in Sri Lanka, to work for their care and to insulate them from extremist elements while they were in India.

An exiled leader, however, cannot be insulated from her people back home. If today there is WhatsApp and social media to keep communication going, said Ms. Ispahani, Ayatollah Khomeini used smuggled letters to reach his supporters in Iran, and Benazir Bhutto used her BlackBerry to keep in touch with leaders and workers of her Pakistan People’s Party.

Yet, conceded Mr. Chandrahasan, there is no denying the toll it takes on the exiled leader’s family. That is a “bigger challenge than anything”, added Mr. Nasheed. But he noted: “You get your strength by what’s happening at home … and wishful thinking.” He said he must fight today so that in the future his daughters could not be tortured as he was. Or as Ms. Ispahani pointed out, in exile you must keep alive ideas that are repressed back home.

Link to original post published by The Hindu – http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/the-flight-and-fight-of-political-exiles/article22786114.ece