Let them hang me
Journalist Zafaryab Ahmed has been charged with treason and conspiracy in Pakistan because
of his involvement with the Bonded Labour Liberation Front. His partner, Maria del Nevo,
describes the aftermath of the murder of Iqbal Masih, the Front’s best-known young activist.

In 1992, when the Pakistan Government passed a bill abolishing bonded labour, my husband Zafaryab Ahmed told me that it would be naive to imagine that hundreds and thousands of men, women and children would suddenly be released from the shackles of debt and poverty. But never could we have imagined that, because he refused to give up trying to expose its continued existence, three years later he would be charged with treason and conspiracy for which he could be hanged.

Zafaryab was arrested at his home on 5 June 1995 by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). His elderly mother, sister and nieces wept, terrified, as he was taken away. He remained in subhuman conditions in Lahore Jail for eight weeks until he was granted temporary bail by the High Court.

He was at the airport, looking gaunt and weary, when I arrived. That night we sat up late talking. Sometimes he fell quiet and stared into space as if trying to make sense of it all. Throughout the long years of martial law he had campaigned for the restoration of democracy and was a loyal supporter of Benazir Bhutto. Now, ironically, it was under her leadership that he could be sent to his death.

He had been carrying out a research project for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF), an organization which has been responsible for releasing and rehabilitating hundreds of children from bonded labour. Ehsan Ullah Khan, the leader of the BLLF, was in Britain at the time of Zafaryab’s arrest. He, too, was charged with mounting ‘economic warfare’ against Pakistan and ‘causing financial loss to Pakistani business interests abroad’.

Zafaryab and I talked about the absurdity of the allegations against him, but we both knew what was at the root of his arrest: the murder in April last year of Iqbal Masih, the 12-year-old bonded labourer turned human-rights activist.

Iqbal was sold by his mother to a carpet manufacturer at the age of four. But, according to Zafaryab, Iqbal was ‘a fighter and no ordinary person’. At the age of ten, with the help of the BLLF, he escaped. Ehsan taught Iqbal to speak publicly and he did so at many BLLF rallies. There was no-one better to convince a crowd than this small boy who could speak from experience – he encouraged up to 3,000 other children to follow in his footsteps by escaping from bondage.

In 1994 Iqbal was awarded the Reebok Human Rights Youth in Action Award. But he had exposed the carpet industry and as a result exports began to fall rapidly. On Easter Day, when he was cycling with his friends Faryad and Liaqat in Muridke, his village, he was shot dead.

Funeral of Iqbal Masih: 'A fighter and no ordinary person.'

A boy called Ashraf confessed to Iqbal’s murder. He was arrested and awaits trial, but has since revoked his confession. Ehsan Ullah Khan stated publicly that he believed his young friend had been murdered by the carpet-industry ‘mafia’.

I recall poring over the cuttings files in the office of the Frontier Post, where I spent two happy years working with Zafaryab as a journalist. The press had had a field day, printing statements by Iqbal’s father – who had abandoned the family many years before – accusing Ehsan Ullah Khan himself of being responsible for the murder in order to add weight to the BLLF campaign, and publishing articles in which Zafaryab was labelled ‘the Indian agent’. Page after page referred to the ‘Western, Jewish and Indian media campaign against Pakistan’.

My time with Zafaryab became more distressing. He was listless, as if tomorrow meant nothing to him. He struggled to write his weekly column for one of the dailies. ‘I don’t know what to write anymore,’ he said.

When he was at the BLLF office one day he received a phone call from Suresh Verma, an Indian film producer based in Los Angeles, who wanted to make a film about child labour based on the life of Iqbal Masih. Zafaryab jumped at the invitation. They eventually agreed to meet, along with Ehsan, in Rome to talk with the film’s financiers. But Zafaryab never got there. The BLLF phones were tapped by the FIA and he was arrested just days after he received his air ticket.

‘A group of journalists went to see Benazir,’ he told me, ‘but she just turned them away, saying that the FIA had all the evidence they needed’. There was a tone of irony in Zafaryab’s laugh. ‘They have no evidence at all,’ he said, ‘some political cartoons a friend had given to me, some money, and letters from you’. Just after my arrival the two FIA officers responsible for investigating, arresting and charging him were transferred from their posts on charges of corruption and conducting raids outside their jurisdiction.

I asked Zafaryab how he felt about his impending trial. ‘There is no case against us and they know that. But I am an embarrassment, and what worries me is that they will resort to other means to get rid of me in order to save face.’

We went to see Zafaryab’s lawyer, Abid Hassan Minto. ‘It is,’ he said, ’a counter-campaign by the carpet industry and the Government. The Government, having passed a law abolishing bonded labour, has to protect its image, and the carpet industry has to protect its exports. The BLLF campaign was a thorn in their side.’

My three-week trip was over. Zafaryab stood with me at the airport waiting for my flight to be announced. I wept while he stared fixedly into the far distance. We were both consumed with the hopelessness of his situation. ‘We can try and get you out,’ I offered weakly. ‘No,’ he said, ‘let them hang me. They will do so knowing that I’m innocent.’

Maria del Nevo is a former member of the New Internationalist co-operative.
Zafaryab Ahmed is supported by Amnesty International.
For further information contact the International Secretariat, 1 Easton Street, London WC1X 8DJ, Tel: (0171) 413 5500

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996